THE D.C. APPEALS COURT'S decision to vacate a lower court order for reforms at the city's juvenile detention centers is a sad outcome. The court made its decision on a point a law -- specifically, that Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler had ruled on a matter that was "moot" because the children who complained to her about conditions at Cedar Knoll and Oak Hill were no longer there when she issued her order. In narrowly legal terms, that decision may be correct. But as a matter of the court's responsibility to the city, to the juvenile justice system and to the children the courts put in that system, the appeals court's ruling is unsatisfactory.In the words of Judge John M. Ferren, who wrote a dissenting opinion, the court failed to address the "hard question of what to do about Cedar Knoll." The court failed even to look at the issue or to ask that someone do so.

Something needs to be done about a place where a youngster gets locked in isolation for 14 days for wearing a sweater over his jacket and then stealing a carton of milk. A city institution where a grown man, hired as a counselor, takes handcuffs off a 15-year-old boy so he can fight the youngster, and then injures the boy so badly that he has to be hospitalized, is not an acceptable institution. Those are two examples of abuse that have taken place at the children's centers in the past three months. Such incidents may reflect the fact that job training shops at the centers are closed; that schools operate only occasionally, if at all; that there is only one counselor for every 20 children, instead of the standard one for every 10; and that young people are being held in the centers an average of 70 days before the first court hearings on their cases.

The appeals court chose to avoid those matters and face only a question of law. But even that question of law took the court almost three years to decide, leaving Judge Kessler's order to grow stale and discouraging other possible legal action to remedy problems at the centers. It is an irony that, after such leisurely handling of the case by the appeals court, the majority opinion should say that the situation at the children's centers, as depicted by youngsters who have been there, is disturbing to even "the most apathetic among our citizenry."

Despite the court's ruling, the Department of Human Services, which operates the centers, should now take the initiative to improve Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll on its own. Some of Judge Kessler's recommendations have been put into effect in the time it took the appeals court to rule. But as shown by repeated incidents of abuse and the warehousing of young people without vocational training or real education, the steps already taken have not been enough. No one should think that, because of the appeals court's ruling, the city and all its agencies are free from blame for the continuing shame at the children's centers.