On 1,200 acres adjacent to Ft. Meade and on the outskirts of Laurel, Md., is a suburban community where several hundred District children are confined on criminal charges. Surrounding them are open, grassy fields and thick woodlands populated by deer, racoon, snakes and other wildlife.

The youth live in compact, brick cottages, attend school and occassionally hold weekend discos at these city-managed, juvenile institutions known as Cedar Knoll and Oak Hill. The centers are run by the Youth Services Bureau of the District Department of Human Resources (DHR).

Recently officials and counselors at the complex charged that mismanagement of funds and poor decisions by "top level DHR satff and city officials" have robbed the institutions of their ability to provide programs needed to direct the youth into non-criminal lives after their release.

"If we don't do somthing with thm now, (after their release) they'll be behaving the same way they were when they came in here or maybe more violently," said James L. Wyatt, director of services for the complex. "They're going to become adult offenders. That's a District of Columbia problem . . . We know how to do our job, but we can't do it without the resources."

Oak Hill now confines about 150 boys, ages 15 to 19, who are charged with felonies. Cedar Knoll, which now has 200 boys and girls, 11 to 15, confines youths charged with less serious crimes. Because youngsters under 16 are required to go to school, even if they are in institutions, both Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll operate educational programs similar to those found in District public schools.

Staff members, in discussing their needs, said there has been a continuing decline in the number of teachers alloted to the institutions. Among jobs cut were those for substitute and vocational teachers.

The special education program has been understaffed because of high turnover rates and DHR's inability to fill the positions, said Kathleen Clark, Laurel's special education director. She estimated that the program has been understaffed by nearly 50 percent during the past 10 years.

Oak Hill once had 10years.

Oak Hill once had 10 shops for instructing youth in the building trades and other vocations, said administrator Preston Gazaway. Two of the shops closed after the instructors left and their jobs were cut from the budget. Five others closed because teachers who left were not replaced, he said. Three shops in barbering, tailoring and painting remain.

Staff members said that training in the building trades would better serve Oak Hill youth when they look for jobs or vocational training after release.

Instruction in the three remaining Oak Hill courses was recently cut from three hours to 90 minutes to include more students in the program, said Gazaway. This is not enough instruction time, he said.

Remsky Atkinson, administrator for Cedar Knoll, said his special education program is understaffed. He contends that nearly all Cedar Knoll youths are functioning far below grade level. Yet they don't meet the guidelines of the federally funded program and he doesn't have enough remedial math and reading teachers in basic education to help them. When these youngsters return to the District schools they're farther behind then when they left, he said.

"The basic shooling situation really hasn't improved," Atkinson said. "One of the things I'm concerned about is being able to beef up our remedial reading and arithmetic. My contention is all of our kids qualify (for special education) but we're only getting money for approximately a third of the students."

Laurel's special education program was evaluated last year for the first time by a private organization outside of DHR, said Betty Ann Kane, chairman of the District School Board's finance com- mittee. The committee monitors the spending of federal funds used to run DHR's special education program.

The interim findings of the group, Contemporary Associates, Inc., concluded that DHR's special education office was not properly administering the program, she said. They did not have current reading and math grades, a consistent grading or monitoring system, proper testing materials or instructors who knew how to properly identify students who needed special education.

DHR officials confirmed Laurel's education problems but said they were not created by apathy or mismanagement of funds.

James Carter, DHR's special education director4, said District school teachers are temporarily assisting DHR in resolving problems uncovered by the evaluation. Twenty-two of 26 special education positions are now filled and his office is preparing to do a follow-up evaluation on special education students next year, he said.

Youth Services Director Thaddeus Taylor agreed that Laurel's vocational classes are "not among the best vocational markets (courses)." The institution can only hire teachers on the federal civil service register, he explained. DHR is now attempting to fill vacancies by using four civil service registers, he said. The process, however, is tedious and often unfruitful.

William Barr, director of the administration which oversees youth services, denied that DHR and city officials have been unsympathetic to the isntitutions' needs. He said various medical positions have been exempted from the city's long-standing freeze on hiring new employes. A $700,000 fund was recently provided for unfunded counselor positions. DHR Director Albert Russo found funds for maintenance problems, Barr said.

"At one point two years ago, the teachers were threatening a strike. The teachers said they would not open the school unless they had the proper supplies to do it, and (former DHR Director Joseph) Yeldel went out to get it. I know he robbed some other program to do it," said Barr.

The problem, said Barr, is a lack of money.

DHR director Russo offered a philosophical solution to Laurel's problems.

"My attitude with regard to DHR employes with regard to DHR employes is what Bobby Kennedy used to say: 'It's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.' Beyond that, I say do the best with what you have. Do better with what you have."

Despite staff shortages, officials at the two institutions said they are attempting to begin innovative therapy programs. Pallone said he recently instituted an incentive system to encourage discipline in the classroom. Each week the clas with elast behavior demerits receives a reward. During the week, the staff encourages students to develop self-control and help classmates. Order, he said, promotes good teaching and learning. As the youth progress in discipline and school work they will be moved into more challenging classes.

In December, Oak Hill instituted "Six Steps Out," a format designed by counselor Anthony Magrauder. The program is a therapy program tailored to the needs of each offender, said Magrauder. Staff members encourage youth to develop self-discipline and personal goals through a step process. Each step has an incentive (such as room decoration, personal clothing o release to a half way house.)

An important aspect of the system is the community advocate, said the staff. Local people - such as members of black fraternities, professionals in various fields - will be matched with incoming offenders. They will encourage offenders to work towards release by providing community incentives such as jobs, housing and school programs. When a youth is released, the community friend will continue his support along with the aid of Oak Hill staff.