They had reasons for breaking curfew: They wanted to grab a late-night snack, visit a friend, or hang out on a street corner.

But in Camden, one of America's most violent and crime-plagued cities, a simple trip to a convenience store can land them in harm's way or put them with the wrong crowd, and officials want to change that.

To protect its youngest residents, the city is enforcing a decades-old curfew law with a new tactic. Rather than punish youths, authorities try to find out why they are loitering late at night, warn them about the dangers they could encounter on the streets, and offer solutions to help them follow the rules.

Parents - many roused from bed - must pick up their errant children. They, too, are informed about the curfew and offered services.

"This is a holistic approach," said Wren Ingram, coordinator for the Camden Curfew Project. "This is about youth safety."

Since the project's launch as a pilot program in 2005, about 500 youths have passed through the curfew center, with few repeat offenders, Ingram said. They get services such as tutoring, counseling and job training - whatever they need to avoid trouble.

Among those who have been picked up were truants, three runaways, and 14 fugitives wanted on warrants, Ingram said.

With more than 15,000 residents ages 10 to 19, Camden has struggled over the years to enforce the curfew, especially in summer.

A typical curfew sweep night in Camden begins with police fanning out across the nine-square-mile city looking for anyone younger than 18 on the streets after 10 on school nights and 11 p.m. on weekends. (Across the river, Philadelphia requires children 12 and younger to be off the street by 9 on weeknights and 10 p.m. on weekends. Youths 13 to 17 can stay out in Philadelphia until 10:30 on weeknights and midnight on weekends.)

Camden violators are taken to a curfew center in the Whitman Park section, where volunteers and experts, including social workers and truancy officers, are ready to help.

During a recent sweep, a special police detail picked up eight youths, mostly at Chinese restaurants and fried-chicken chains that are open until early morning, Lt. Jason Pike said.

"Some of them said they were walking home from a friend's home," he said. One girl was stopped in front of the curfew center, which is in a wing of the former Virtua hospital on Mount Ephraim Avenue.

On the fifth floor, they are processed after surrendering cell phones and electronic devices. Volunteers interview them and look for signs of gang involvement, drug use or neglect.

"These kids need guidance. They need to be redirected," said volunteer India Lark, 34, a mother of four.

Some youths were upset with police for picking them up. One boy was carted away in handcuffs after an angry outburst.

"I'm never coming back here," 10th grader Brittany Nobles said as she left with her grandfather after about an hour at the center.

That's exactly the response curfew officials want to hear, Ingram said. After a third offense, juveniles are given a summons to appear in municipal court with their parents.

"We're not that nice. Three strikes - you're out," Ingram said.

Before the curfew project, violators were taken immediately to police headquarters and given a court summons.

Ray Nobles said he was surprised to learn his 16-year-old granddaughter had been out after curfew.

"She should have been in the house. I was asleep. When I got the phone call, it woke me up," Nobles said.

Concerned parents, some wearing hair rollers and house slippers, were ushered into separate rooms, where volunteers interviewed them and offered referral services.

Some parents said they were unaware that the curfew ordinance was being enforced. Parents can be issued summonses and fined up to $1,000 for violations.

"It's a lot of kids out there who shouldn't be," Ray Nobles said.

Most violent crime in Camden occurs between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., officials said. Youths on the street during those hours are more likely to be victims, especially of assaults, Ingram said.

Last month, Jerrel Little, 18, was found shot to death in an alley. Little was picked up in a 2005 curfew sweep, Ingram said.

"I hate to read the homicide list," she said. "I'm like, 'I hope it's not one of the kids who came through here.' "

About 15 volunteers - including two grandmothers and a college student - waited patiently until the last juvenile was picked up shortly before 1 a.m.

Youths sometimes give a bogus telephone number until they realize they cannot be released until a parent or guardian arrives. If no one appears, they are turned over to police.

Volunteer Emma Filmore, 66, a great-grandmother and retired food-service worker, sat in a large room keeping a watchful eye over a young girl.

"I'm trying to make a little difference. I don't know how much," she said. "Maybe there's someone I can reach."

Across the room, Camden Fire Capt. Darryl Davis, another volunteer, sat at a table with 15-year-old Keith Davis. The teenager, not related to the captain, had been picked up with an older brother while standing on a sidewalk near their home.

Darryl Davis and the Camden High School freshman chatted comfortably about school, life and Davis' job. Davis told him that he has a teenage grandson.

"You have to reach out to them and let them know you care," Davis said.

When his mother arrived shortly before 1 a.m. Keith Davis smiled broadly and shook hands with the elder Davis, who offered a parting warning:

"I'm going to be stopping up to check on you," he told the teenager. "Keep yourself busy and off the streets."

Camden's Curfews

Nighttime curfew:

Unless accompanied by a parent, no one younger than 18 shall remain in any public place after 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday until 6 a.m. the next day. Curfew starts at 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Exceptions:

Returning home from work or from a school or religious activity.

School curfew:

No one between ages 5 and 18 shall remain in any public place outside any school grounds between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. while school is in session.

Contact staff writer Melanie Burney at 856-779-3876 or mburney@phillynews.com.