About 50 youths remain at Cedar Knoll, the District's minimum-security juvenile detention center in Laurel, Md., which city officials had vowed to close by July 1.

"We closed down intake July 1," explained Patricia Quann, D.C. youth administrator, who said 30 youths had been placed at other facilities in the last few weeks.

"I wanted to do this real carefully," said Quann. "I didn't want to move kids onto the streets too fast. I wanted to let them attrition themselves out. We went down to the wire because school wasn't out until late June and we wanted to let them finish their classes."

The crumbling collection of buildings is gasping for its last breath and city officials say the buildings will be empty no later than September.

About half of the 100 staff members are gone, sent to assignments at other juvenile centers.

The 50 acres of once plush green land that surrounded the institution have faded into fields of browning grass.

Most of the brick buildings -- the school, the vocational shops, the social services unit, 10 of the 13 cottages -- sit empty or boarded up.

The city moved most of the children into other city institutions. Others were allowed to returned home and some were placed in group homes.

"We moved some children into the community services program and some into shelter programs," said Quann.

"But a number of children have court dates soon and it doesn't make sense to move them until we find out the disposition of their cases."

"As opposed to frenzied movement, we're slowly phasing out students as releases in other programs provide vancancies," said Gwendolyn Trader, acting superintendent at Cedar Knoll.

"We have . . . where we felt a lesser custody was appropriate, approached the bench and asked the court for modification" of a sentence, she said.

The 30-year-old Cedar Knoll, the city's institution for children who were awaiting trial or those who had been found guilty of committing minor crimes ranging from chronic truancy to petty theft, has a long history of problems, including frequent escapes, staffing problems and reports of sexual assaults and drug use.

In 1978, after a six-month investigation of Cedar Knoll and Oak Hill, the city's maximum security detention center for older youthful offenders, D.C. Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler ordered a wide range of reforms at the facilities, including more meaningful education programs.

Kessler's order was overturned in 1981, but city officials said they implemented most of the reforms.

In 1984 the independent D.C. Public Defender Service filed a lawsuit against the city alleging that residents at Cedar Knoll and Oak Hill were being subjected to vermin-infested housing, beatings from their counselors, inadequate medical attention and insufficient educational programs.

A week later in March 1984 Audrey Rowe, D.C. commissioner for social services, announced that Cedar Knoll would close on July 1.

Rowe said the city had been trying to close the facility for some time and the $3.7 million budgeted for the operation of Cedar Knoll would be transferred to improve services at other facilities, such as Oak Hill.

The population at Cedar Knoll was usually males, ages 13 to 17, and divided into "detained" and "committed" youths.

Detained youths were awaiting trial but because of the nature of their offense or their criminal history, they were put under the supervision of the city, Quann said.

"Committed" youths had been found guilty of a delinquent act. Cedar Knoll usually got the younger delinquents. "We averaged 300 to 400 committed youngsters and about 1,500 detained" youngsters a year, said Quann.

To close Cedar Knoll, youths, who are considered the greatest security risk, have been placed at the reopened Children's Receiving Home, in Northeast, which until recently had been allowed by court order to house young offenders overnight.

DHS has allowed some of the youths to return home to their families. The Department of Human Services counselor monitors their activities while offering education and advice.

Other Cedar Knoll residents have also been placed in one of the three new shelters DHS created in the past year, including Harambee House, a District shelter for girls.

"Cedar Knoll was the only program for committed girls," said Quann. "But last year we only had 15 girls. At one time there would be 7 girls with 100 guys. It was a manager's nightmare when it came to developing programs for such a small population."

During the day, the remaining Cedar Knoll residents attend summer school at Oak Hill about a mile away, leaving the campus deathly still except for a flock of chirping sparrows.

For Trader, who came to work at the center as a counselor in 1961, closing Cedar Knoll is like leaving a home.

"I grew up here. Not having worked anywhere else, I have some definite roots here," she said.

"There are 50 kids here now. I remember when there were 550," said Trader. "We are extremely short-staffed. I remember when there were plenty of people around to do everything . . . .

"I remember when [the facilities at] Cedar Knoll didn't take second to any college campus. The staff had vegetables planted in the back and flowers in the front. We've lacked considerable numbers and varieties of service, but I've never felt the quality of service was in jeopardy.

"The quality of service has always been good because you have people here who genuinely care about children."