They have children's countenances, adults' concerns, and each other's shoulders.

They have babies. Sweet, adorable tots, who settle softly into their mothers' laps, but weigh heavily on their lives.

These 12 "Junior Parents" are a small number of the 1,070 families touched last year by the D.C. Parent Child Center, which steers low-income parents toward self-sufficiency, using softness or sternness as the situation requires.

"For me, they have done so much, I don't think you could put it into words," said Cynthia Morton, 18, attending a Junior Parent meeting days after she started a $22,000-a-year job as an office manager.

The center, at 1325 W St. NW, stands as a citadel of concern in Shaw-Cardozo, reaching into society's most profound troubles to pull parents and children from despondency and dependence.

"They've got to know you care. You've got to be available," said Executive Director Ruth Rucker, who helped found the center 20 years ago.

In return, Rucker said, she sees "the glory of seeing a parent succeed, of having them come in to say, 'I made it! I passed my GED! I passed my civil service exam!'

"If you want to be in charge of your life, you have to go out in the work force," Rucker said. "You can't do that if you keep having babies too soon."

So Morton and all Junior Parents have pledged not to have any more children until they are older and secure. With the center's guidance, they have returned to school or started work, and must bring their children to the center each morning for day care. Every two weeks, they convene for group discussions and encouragement.

Jacquelyn Henry, who runs the Junior Parents program, disputes the stereotype of low-income teen-agers having babies to get attention, to gain status, or to have something to cuddle and love. In fact, she said, pregnancy causes terrible embarrassment.

"Nobody planned this," Henry said emphatically. "They just slipped up. They thought, 'It won't happen to me.' "

Janet Innis, 21, who has completed a data entry program and now is studying to be a dental lab technician, remembers feeling humiliated.

"I was pregnant in 12th grade. I wanted to drop out. I was at Wilson {High School}; there weren't too many people pregnant over there," she said. "My mother encouraged me to stay in school, and said 'Don't worry about your stomach.' "

Rebuilding confidence undermined by the disdain and disappointment of teachers, friends and parents ranks high on the center's agenda.

"We ask them 'What did you feel like? What did you feel like telling your parents, telling your friends?' " Henry said. "They said up until then, no one really asked, 'How do you feel?' It was only 'What are you going to do?' "

The young mothers, who have varying levels of support from the children's fathers and their own parents, depend heavily on the center's staff and each other for support.

"I felt so alone," said Morton, mother of 7-month-old Reginald. "When I would be here around them, I would be happy. But then I went home to my empty apartment and cried. I would pick up my child and hold him, and that made me feel a little better, but I was still sad.

"But," she said, glancing at Henry and her assistant Margie Proctor, "Jackie made me figure I still had friends."

Irene Branham, a 15-year-old student at Terrell Junior High School, has a year-old baby named Denise.

"My goal is to make it to high school, because I know if I get there, I can get through, with my friends and PCC," Branham said. "I was getting As {in school} until I got pregnant.

"I feel as though PCC has helped us understand things," Branham said. "We have children, and we've got to deal with that. I love my daughter more than anything in the world."

Morton said that while in job training, "I wanted to quit and just hang out and watch the soaps, eat and play with my baby."

"I didn't want to be on welfare . . . . I don't want to have to depend on anyone," said Carolyn Swinson, 18, drawing a chorus of agreement from the Junior Parents.

In addition to Junior Parents, the center runs three day care sites, cares for handicapped children and sponsors "Let's Play to Grow," in which families with handicapped children go to restaurants or movies, using the strength of numbers to fend off stares, insensitive questions or bad treatment in public.

In the Home-Based program, caseworkers visit houses and apartments, helping parents learn self-respect, find employment and combat the hopelessness, ignorance or destructive behavior that can ruin a child's life -- and persist through generations.

"About 70 to 75 percent of these parents grew up in situations where their parents had a hard time, and didn't have time to give guidance to their children," Rucker said.

The center stresses that it is never too late to start a legacy of good parenting.

"In all of our programs, we try to set {parents'} minds at ease. None of us are born knowing what to do. Parenting skills are learned skills," said program director Debra Byrd.

Parent Child Centers, with 38 around the country, were established to help children ages 3 and under, because the Head Start preschool program had revealed seriously delayed development even in the earliest years. Administrators saw clearly that the learning process for young children begins at home.

Valerie Ashton, director of home visits, noted that a poor 18-year-old with three children and little education may not have the time, energy or resources to offer much instruction to her children.

To emphasize new horizons and different life styles, the center sometimes sponsors field trips -- to such places as parks and theaters. Henry and Ashton said they have met lifelong residents of the center's neighborhood who have never visited the Mall or the monuments.

Funding for the center's $1.3 million budget comes mainly from the city's Department of Human Services, the United Planning Organization through Head Start, and the United Way, which recently financed the hiring of an Hispanic affairs coordinator.

The 73-person staff and about eight volunteers serve a clientele that is mostly black, with a growing number of Hispanics. About 90 percent of participants are single mothers.

On March 5, Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Calif.) will host a fund-raising dinner for the Parent Child Center.

"What we are trying to do is raise some money and give them some visibility," Dymally said, citing the "critical shortage" of intense child development programs such as the Parent Child Center. At the dinner, Rucker will name the facility for Dr. Edward Mazique, a prominent Washington physician and civil rights activist who appeared as Santa Claus days before he died in December.

Within three years, the center must relocate; the building was sold recently. But, Rucker said, it will remain in the neighborhood of its inception because of the tremendous need for its services.

Swinson, who like most Parent Child Center participants lives nearby, now works for an office personnel firm in Virginia. But at one time, she commuted to Wilson High, where her basketball prowess had drawn offers from major powers including Georgia Tech and UCLA.

"I had it all," Swinson said. Embarrassed by her pregnancy, she quit school.

"Any of you still living at home, stay there," said Morton, drawing some rueful nods from her friends. Some said they never dreamed, before they were saddled with responsibility, just how brutal the pressure to buy food and pay rent could be.

Swinson, who has a high school equivalency certificate and hopes to attend the University of the District of Columbia, said that the center "brought me out of my shell."

She now predicts that by age 25 she will own a house in Potomac with a basketball net, where she can teach her maneuvers to her son, Brian Darrell, who is now 14 months old.

As she described the plan, she smiled brilliantly -- even as tears rolled over her cheeks.

The dream is far removed from her life on W Street. "You hear bullets as you walk home at night, with your baby in your arms. And you pray, 'God, let me make it to my apartment alive,' " Swinson said.

Because the program's mission offers such contrast to these episodes, Swinson said, "It is a blessing to have this center here."

Her eyes fell on Rucker entering the room, and the smile returned, this time sans tears. "They love us," Swinson said confidently. "This lady right here? She loves us."