Inadequately staffed and poorly funded city agencies are doing little to help the hundreds of Washington children who suffer from drug abuse problems ranging from alcoholism to herion addiction, according to city officials and neighborhood and private social workers.

Elementary and junior high school children are skin-popping, swallowing and smoking mind-altering drugs while overburdened school officials disavow any responsibility. Private agencies, bereft of funds from other sources and to a large degree dependent on contracts from a cash-pinched city government, are struggling to fill the void with little success.

Hospital emergency rooms throughout the city have seen cases of little children strung-out on PCP, a hallucinogenic drug, and police say there is evidence that drug use among juveniles is growing. But many city agencies, operating with little coordination and often defensive about their own actions, place the blame elsewhere when asked to explain their answers to the problem.

Several elementary school principals interviewed in Southeast Washington last week, for example, said they have found syringes on school playgrounds, and some teachers said they have noticed hyperactive or exceedingly sleepy children who they believe are taking drugs. But the top administrators, they say, have never made the policy on how to handle such matters clear enough, and as a result the incidents are seldom recorded and parents or other authorities are seldom told of drug use.

"Everyone is zeroing in on the school . . . but it should be on the city to find out what they are doing about drug use and prevention," said Vincent Reed, superintendent of D.C. Public Schools. Reed said he doesn't have any idea how many children are using drugs, nor is there any plan to train teachers how to recognize drug use symptoms nor to issue new directives in the wake of a newspaper story of an 8-year-old boy named "Jimmy" who skin-popped heroin.

"We don't plan to do anything," Reed said.

Teenagers barking their wares openly sell marijuana and other drugs from streetcorners and in some parts of the city, ice cream trucks sell bags of marijuana and other drugs along with candy and popsicles. Police, more concerned about adult drug trafficking, seem powerless to stop them.

In private and municipal youth drug programs, counselors say that the 12 to 14-year-old drug users, whose numbers are increasing at an alarming rate, began their drug dependency at age 10, or even as early as age 8 in some cases. Counselors complain that parents are unaware of what is taking hold of their children or refuse to acknowledge that their own children need help.

When children land in trouble, juvenile courts dump them into badly coordinated city-run programs that lack money, staff and expertise to grapple with the underlying causes of drug dependence. In the city, three full-time counselors, aided by a part-time child psyjchiatrist and sociologist, attempt to reach 180 youths referred to them by the courts. There is no money or staff for an effective outreach program for children on drugs who have not yet gotten into trouble.

"I don't know of anyone who really has a good handle on the scope of the problem," said Dr. Stephen Hersh, director of St. Elizabeths Hospital's division of child and adolescent services. "The disorganized human services system in the District is, if not the worst, one of the worst human services programs in the country. They have a need for resources that, if they plan properly, the could probably get."

The Department of Human Services spends about $230,000 directly on youth drug abuse counseling programs, while more than $2 million is is spent on adult drug programs. Little children -- tomorrow's adults -- who use drugs and sell drugs are crying out for help.

"What I'm seeing is frightening, and it's not just happening in the District of Columbis," said Peter Crockett, the head of Second Genesis, a private program that works with adolescent youth from the District, Maryland and Virginia. Last year 30 youths were in his drug abuse program, this he has 55. "It's a [drug] problem that you just can't sweep under the rug. In a public health sense, what we have is an epidemic."

Youth drug counselors say that the problem of children using drugs is a growing one that transcends race, religion and economic background and effects children throughout the Washington Metropolitan area.

"It's not just the ghetto child that has the drug problem," said Joan Goodman, a drug counselor at Second Genesis. "I have a case of a middle-class white girl who was an alcolic at age 9. We got her when she was 13."

Interviews with top school officials indicate that there is no clear understanding of what to do about reporting instances of drug use, despite a public school directive that says: ". . . the use and/or possession of narcotics or alcoholic liquids . . . must be reported to the Metropolitan Police, District of Columbia Public Schools' Security Office and Regional offices." Some officials choose not to deal with the problem. Others say they don't know what to look for.

Said Billy Rodgers, assistant chief of security for the school system: "It's not necessary that school security be notified about drug use, only if there is a person who has overdosed. We do concentrate on sales; our primary record is of distribution."

"We've had a good seven, eight maybe ten cases of heroin use in the elementary to junior high school level," said Reuben G. Pierce, assistant superintendent for Region A of the school district. He said he has no idea of the number of cases of other kinds of drug use.

Florence Butler, chief of security for Region A, said about drug use in the same region, "I don't have any information to give you. I won't add anything more on it."

Rogers, assistant director of security for the entire public school system said, "We haven't had any cases of anyone using hard drugs at any school. None have come to my attention.If a report were forwarded, I would get it. Our biggest problems have been with marijuana and PCP."

Hear the sentiments of other school officials, all of them principals:

"We know our students," said Lawrence Boone, of Orr Elementary. "If any were on drugs, we'd definitely know about it.

"We watch them every day, we have no drug problem in our school," said Peggienne M. Harrison of Birney Elementary, in Pierce's region.

Pierce said, "Just recently I've heard about places in the Good Hope Road-Minnesota Avenue area where kids purchase dope. Mrs. Harrison told me about it. Her kids in school told me about it."

If the schools are ill-equipped or reluctant to deal with the problems of youth drug abuse, city agencies are hardly in a better position.

Police also are ill-equipped to handle a youth drug problem. Their major focus on drugs, according to officials, is the war on heroin aimed largely at adults. Some juveniles have been arrested, however, in police investigations. a

"We have three drug abuse counselers for youth and these people cannot do everything," said John Vaughn, head of the Department of Human Services' specialized services division that oversees the youth program. "It's a very large problem and we admit that we have but a small piece of it."

Audrey Rowe, commissioner of the Department of Human Services, said Vaughn's department is not the only one dealing with youth drug problems. "I know that the D.C. Department of Recreation has a drug van that visits outdoor concerts and activities giving drug abuse information There my be other agencies like that doing things."

"There is some coordination among the agencies but there needs to be more," she said. "There has been talk about a need to pull together the resources to form a coordinated effort, maybe a task force, and I will push to begin to gather a task force next week."

"You don't want to think that people don't care, but some of the money that is going out elsewhere should be put into the care and treatment for the youth," said Vaughn. "Every clinic we have now is overcapacitated. Our staff has actually decreased since the city' hiring freezes. We can't hire anybody and we're losing staff through attrition.

"You better look towards those who are to come. We will have a jellybrain society in the next 20 years -- all these youngsters you see on the bus smoking pot, walking around the school halls on PCP and not learning anything. They are going to be the adults 20 years from now, and what's going to happen to us? I tell you, it's scary."

"Atkins, one of the city's drug counselors, said "People have to be made aware to give a damn. Drugs are not the problem. The problem -- what people are not looking at -- are the underlying causes or reasons why kids use drugs.

"They use drugs because of family problems, because of inflation and the stress with coping with bad housing conditions and unemployment, and because of peer pressure, wanting to belong."

Melton Williams, an experienced city drug counselor, said part of the reason for youth drug problems is the breakdown of the family structure. "You have 25-year-old parents and 10-year-old children," he said. "If the momma doesn't see anything wrong with it, she might give drugs to her kids to quiet them down. There is a breakdown of controls in society -- how many families sit down together at the dinner table any more? Adulst are taking on the vocabulary of the kids, patterning themselves after kids rther than the other way around. Adults should be adults again."

"Neighbors should help out and parents should listen to them when they tell them about their children rather than be offended," he said. "We need to get back to 'Stop that, or I'm going to tell your Daddy.'"

Dr. Sidney Shankman, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and executive director of Second Genesis, said constant drug use masks other difficulties and is a message that the child is in trouble.

"If people would use the presence of aberrant behavior to explore the reasons . . . rther than focus on the chemical per se, one should understand that when a young person turns to chemicals, it is usually to mask some kind of problem, such as depression, anxiety, or problems in interpersonal relations."

"We have to spend a lot of time with these children just to find out what the problems really are," said Pat Bellamy, another district youth counselor. "Sometimes you can pick them up just in time to turn them around. Other times, it's too late."