It was 7 a.m. one recent day when the five police officers arrived at the apartment in Southeast Washington and a plump, sleepy-eyed woman in a pink see-through nightgown and plaid slacks slowly opened the green metal door.

Her 16-year-old son had escaped from Oak Hill, the city's juvenile detention home in Laurel, Md., the officers said. They had a court order to pick him up.

"I ain't seen 'im," she said, punctuating her disdain with a jerk of her head. She'd been through this routine before. She stepped back, leaving the door ajar for the police to come in. They did, accompanied by a reporter.

In the front room, the sofa bed was open, the covers turned back, the gold sheets wrinkled. Detective Gerald Jodan shined his flashlight under the bed.

"He's not here, Sarge. Let's go," Jordan said.

As they walked toward the door, Jordan paused and winked at his partners as he pointed to the sofa. Then he yanked up the mattress and shouted:

"Come on out of there!"

A short, muscular youth in a white T-shirt and briefs crawled out, his hands open and stretched out at his waist. He seemed ready to surrender. In an instant, he made a move as if to run away. But two of the detectives grabbed him and escorted him into another room so he could dress.

His mother leaned against the dingy white kitchen wall, rested her head on her arm and began to sob. "He's my son," she said, as they led him away. "I couldn't turn him in."

The police "had one" -- one down, about 500 to go. Once again, this mother's son was off to jail. Maybe she would see him again soon; maybe not. But the system had done its job Another juvenile offender was back in custody.

It is an often emotional, although muted drama played out hundreds of times each year in this city, where juveniles, many of them career criminals, are fueling the increasing crime rate, often committing crimes while running from the law. Most often it involves the special D.C. police unit assigned the task of apprehending Washington's young fugitives: teenagers who have run away -- usually from shelter homes, juvenile detention facilities or persons entrusted with their care -- or have failed to make scheduled court appearances.

Both the parents and the police speak of frustration.

Shirley Risper of Marshall Heights, the mother of a teen-ager accused of running away from Cedar Knoll, another D.C. juvenile detention center, recently explained her feelings to a reporter shortly after police came to her house at 6:20 a.m. one Tuesday on a futile hunt for her son.

"They come after him like he is a hard-core criminal," she said. "But he isn't. He's been at Cedar Knoll for about a year or two. He's there basically for not going to school and getting into trouble like shoplifting."

Two weeks earlier she had turned him in after he escaped and came home. Her actions angered him, she said: "He doesn't say it, but you can see it in his eyes.

"There is nothing I can do with him. I don't know where he is all the time. Even if he came home now, if I try to take him back, he could run away."

Jordan, who has been chasing juvenile offenders for eight years, said, "It's a natural instinct for a parent to want to protect her [or his] child. "Some parents really want to cooperate, but some get so disgusted.

"The first time, they will help you. Then when you keep coming back, they get disgusted. They say, 'Hey, I tried to help the police, and you keep letting him back out, and I have to deal with him.' The parents get disgusted."

Many of the youngsters see the flaws in the system and are bold enough to challenge it again and again.

"I'll be back out," said one youth in stocking feet, as police placed him in an unmarked car following his recent arrest in Anacostia. The youth hasn't escaped again -- yet. But Jordan's partner, David Fenwick, expects that he will. Said Fenwick, "Give him time."

Jordan, a 30-year-old beanpole of a man with a penchant for three-piece suits that he wears with the vest unbuttoned, and Fenwick, 41, down-home police veteran with a cool sense of humor, are the mainstays of the D.C. police absconder squad. Its other members are Sgt. Connie Johnson, and detectives Abraham Parks and Robert J. Garaffo.

The five-person squad, part of the police department's juvenile division, is credited with nearly 400 of the 549 arrests of juvenile escapees last year.

A reporter who spent several mornings traveling with the squad found the experience mixed childish mischief with old-fashioned police savvy, and provided a unique glimpse into one aspect of Washington's criminal justice system for juveniles.

The officers arrive at work at 5:30 a.m., go over new cudstody orders and check the files of juveniles they plan to look for that day. By 6 a.m., they are on the streets.

When Jordan and Fenwick -- called "Salt and Pepper" by one official because Jordan is white and Fenwick is black -- go into a home, they present a court custody order, which gives the name of the child they are seeking and the reasons th child is being sought. It also provides authority for searching the premises.

Sometimes the occupants cooperate. Sometimes they do not.

The police officers said they have found juveniles hiding in closets and under beds. One was discovered hiding between the mattress and springs of the bed in which his hefty grandmother was lying. Another ripped out the back of a stereo console and had someone push it against the wall to form the almost-perfect hiding place.

There was another youth who ripped out the frame of a chest of drawers and hid behind it. One youth was found in a refrogeratpr, another in a freezer. Still another was uncovered hiding inside an unstuffed sofa.

The job has dangers. Fenwick and Jordan have had knives and razors drawn on them while picking up juveniles. When they draw their guns, it is usually in self-defense -- sometimes when dogs are set upon them by uncooperative juveniles and their relatives and friends.

Some parents are deceptive. Jordan remembers one youth's father who would immediately invite the police officer into his home, talk for 30 minutes and then voluntarily ride with the officer through the neighborhood to see whether they could find the boy. They never did.

The youth was eventually arrested by other police officers in the attic of his father's house -- where the father had been hiding him each time Jordan came.

It was four weeks ago when they first picked up Risper's son after his first escape. On that occasion, his mother turned him in.

The youth remained at Cedar Knoll for less than five days before he ran away agin. On May 5, at 6:20 a.m., the officers returned to Risper's house to see if the youth were there.

An aunt in a robe and head rag let the officers in. The living room was cluttered with chairs and a sofa. Clothes were on the chairs, and a sheet and blanket were on the floor, next to the coffee table.

Shoes were strewn over the dark-colored, worn carpet. A sleepy-eyed teen-ager with beaded hair was asleep on the sofa, but woke up when the officers entered. He didn't bother to get up, but just turned his head in the opposite direction as if nothing were going on.

Risper said her son was not there. The officers searched the house, checking all the rooms, under beds and in closets.

"I'm going down to court to keep you people from coming in here," Risper said. "I'm getting tired of you coming early in the morning, invading people's privacy. Y'all must freak out at invading people's bedrooms early in the morning."

The officers said nothing, but continued to search. When it was over, Jordan came downstairs.

"You check the toilet while you was up there?" asked the voice from the sofa.

"Yeah, we checked it real good," Jordan said. "We flushed it."

In an interview a day later, Risper said, "I think it's kind of stupid. It kind of upset me. Even after I told him that he wasn't here, they still go through the house and invade the bedrooms."

Risper said she would never hide her son, because she wants him to finish his time at Cedar Knoll so he can get out and not have to worry about the police looking for him. "I told him that if he were here and the police came for him, I would turn him in."

The mother said she had thought the youth was still at Cedar Knoll until the police came looking for him.

Later that morning, police arrived at the Northeast Washington home of Mary Westry. They were looking for a daughter who had failed to make a court appearance. At first, Westry refused to open the door. But after she and others in her family were threatened with arrest, they let the officers in.

Fenwick and Johnson checked the basement, the first and second floors. A youth in his 20s, shirtless and barefooted, followed the pair throughout the house.

At one point, they knocked on a bathroom door. "My father's in there," the youth said. Sure enough, the father, who was shaving, opened the door. The girl was not there.

Westry told the officers that she planned to go to court to keep them out of her home.

"I don't like coming into your house just as much as you don't like me being here," Johnson told her."But we have a custody order for your daughter, and until she returns to court, we have to come looking for her here. She is carrying your address."

In an interview a day later, Westry said she had called the court to tell them to take her address off the custody order because her daughter was no longer living with her.

"They said unless I gave them an address where they could go looking for her, they would keep my address," she said. "I don't know where she is. If I knew where she was, I wouldn't tell them. I'm her mother."

From his vantage point, Jordan sees a world of Washington youth who he says lack proper discipline.

"It's like a small child writing on the walls with crayons," he said. "If you tell a kid, 'I don't want you to write on the wall. If you do, I'm going to punish you,' then he writes on the wall and you don't punish him, the kid's going to do it again and again, because he knows he is going to get away with it."