A youth entering the juvenile justice system in Prince George's County starts out in the Upper Marlboro courthouse in a tiny room reeking of state urine just outside the holding cell for prisoners awaiting trial.

This is the juvenile services "intake office" -- the first stop for youngsters who are on their way to being declared "children in need of supervision" and wards of the court.

Usually, youngsters arrive at the facility in the middle of the night with only the clothes they are wearing. They are brought in by police, if they are runaways, or by their parents who claim they can no longer control them and who want to turn them over to the court for supervision.

The intake process is virtually the same in any jurisdiction in Maryland. It begins with a form.

The intake officer (a juvenile services counselor) uses the form to summarize the parents' complaints against the child and the child's response to them. The fights, the marital difficulties, the hurts, frustrations and fears are summarized on one side of the form.

From this information, the intake officer decides whether the parents have a valid basis for complaint and whether they will be permitted to swear out a petition charging the child with being beyond parental control.

If the officer believes the parents' complaints should be investigated the youngster may be sent to a private foster home or a shelter home -- a facility set up to house youths on a short-term basis. The family must appear in court the day after the petition is drawn ally advised of the allegations against him or her.

Usually, a child spends 30 days in a shelter. It is a "cooling off period," juvenile authorities say, before the child appears in court for an adjudicatory hearing, at which point a judge or juvenile master hears the parents' complaints at length. At this time, the judge will frequently order a court diagnostic team to evaluate the child's problems and home situation.

Thirty days later, the families return again to court for a final disposition hearing. Then the judge decides whether the child belongs in the care and custody of the court or should be sent back home.