They come after their first brush with the law, accused of crimes ranging from shoplifting to assault. Some are anxious, some sit head in hand, glancing at the clock, talking in circles.

"We have counselors who listen to that for 15 minutes," said William E. (Skip) Henry Jr., head of New Directions, a private program for first-time juvenile offenders aged 10 to 18. "Then they'll say, 'All right, let's cut out all the bull---- and start over.' "

What follows, in most cases, is an intensive, 90-day exploration into the causes behind their criminal behavior. For the last eight years, New Directions counselors have helped troubled youths in Prince George's County probe problems in the family, with friends and in school in a way that bureaucracies rarely can.

But this year, the Prince George's Juvenile Services Department put out for public bid the contracts it had signed with New Directions and three other private juvenile help programs year after year. The result was what several administrators called a "game of musical chairs." In almost every case, an agency will give up a program it had run for years, and take on one it has never tried before.

According to the agencies' operators and county juvenile services officials who decided to take bids, the move of the juvenile offenders' counseling program from New Directions to another agency will mean a break in services affecting an estimated 40 youths and considerable expense to both agencies. But more than these concerns, operators say they wonder whether the specialized programs they have shaped over the years will survive in someone else's hands.

State officials have selected Edgemeade Inc., the only agency not currently running a state-contracted juvenile service, to take over youth Evaluation and Diagnostic Services, which Project Guide had been operating. Project Guide, in turn, will run the comprehensive counseling services program that had been run by Family Services of Prince George's County. Comprehensive counseling includes family relations counseling, tutorial services and therapeutic recreation for troubled youths. Family Services won the bid for the pre-trial diversion plan formerly run by New Directions. New Directions didn't get any of the contracts.

"We just got caught in the middle," said James S. Dedes, the state's regional juvenile services supervisor for Prince George's. The General Assembly passed a law this year requiring state agencies to put up for bidding not only equipment and supply contracts but human services programs as well.

Dedes said the legislature granted an exemption for social, educational and human services in early May, "but we had already gone through the (bidding) process and the proposals."

Most of the contract changes came because Dedes and other juvenile services officials judged proposals from different agencies as better, he said. Family Services offered to run a pretrial diversion program for nearly $15,000 less than New Directions' $164,000 proposal. Dedes said the Family Services plan appeared to be as well conceived as the service offered by New Directions.

Dedes said county juvenile counselors who screen and monitor juveniles accused of crimes temporarily will have to redirect or counsel directly youths who get squeezed out of services during the transition and while new agencies gear up their programs.

Pre-Trial Options Programs Inc. runs both New Directions and a truancy and runaway intervention service called Children in Need of Supervision (CINS), which was not affected by the bidding. Henry, who heads both programs, said the prospect of yearly bidding complicates the cost of running private services. He said it affects leasing arrangements (New Directions rents five offices), long-term planning and hiring. But what is endangered most, according to Henry, is the chemistry developed over the years: the counselors with a certain vision and style, a program's rapport with the youth who come to know it.

Some Prince George's juvenile service intake counselors agree. One state counselor, John W. Altfather, said he has lists of various juvenile services, including job programs, drug addiction agencies and other counseling services, to which he can refer children with specific problems. But first-time offenders who need to penetrate emotional issues behind their antisocial behavior are most often assigned to New Directions, which handles 300 cases each year.

Juveniles accused for the first time--except for those charged with serious assaults, arson and murder--may be sent to New Directions if parents, juvenile service officers, police and victims of the crime agree. Examiners report to state juvenile officers within 25 days, giving a detailed account of the child's problems, and recommendations on whether he or she should go on to court or continue to be counseled by New Directions workers.

"They come in here and have a feeling it's going to be like seeing a probation officer," said Mary Jo Murray, who has worked in New Directions' Marlow Heights office for two years. "What they don't know, and aren't ready for, is that we're going to examine their feelings. They're going to be talking to someone who's insisting they deal with their life."

In 1979, the latest figures said to be available, 85 percent of those who finished the 90 days of twice-weekly counseling by New Directions workers did not commit other offenses for six months or longer. Those who complete the New Directions program are released without facing trial and without a court record.

While Nathan S. Nackman, director of Family Services, said he was anxious over losing the comprehensive counseling his firm had done, he predicted his people would run the pretrial diversion program just as well as counselors at New Directions.