A new set of statewide regulations will require better oversight and more training for staff in the troubled system of group homes sheltering some of Maryland's most vulnerable young people, state officials announced yesterday.

Under the new regulations, due to go into effect in January, key group home employees will be required to undergo 40 hours of annual training, including suicide risk assessment and the proper use of restraints.

The system came under criticism two years ago after two teenage girls in separate group homes committed suicide. Subsequent investigations revealed that both girls had threatened suicide but neither of them received proper supervision.

The new rules enforce stricter standards for the admission of residents to ensure that young people are placed in homes where they will receive the services they need. The rules also tighten criminal background standards for those applying for licenses to open homes and raise safety requirements for the homes.

"The message today is Maryland is raising the bar for residential services for youth," announced Department of Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe, flanked by other state officials and the staff of Aunt Hattie's Place, a widely praised Baltimore group home.

"Not all group homes are like this home," said McCabe, speaking from the steps of the broad and solid house, a refuge for 12 boys awaiting permanent placement with families.

The facilities can expect increased oversight under the new regulations, said state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary S. Anthony McCann.

"We have staff prepared to act immediately if children are in danger," McCann said.

Child welfare advocates questioned whether the state was going far enough and suggested the agencies should spend the money for more staff and services for the young people.

"These are often very challenging children," said James P. McComb, executive director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth. "You are talking about kids who have gone through hell."

The new regulations apply to more than 300 facilities, large and small, which care for more than 2,000 displaced young people throughout the state. The homes have a mandate to protect children struggling with such issues as abandonment, abuse, criminal behavior and disabilities.

The state spends $50,000 annually for each child in a group home, yet some homes fail to provide even minimal services, McCabe said.

The effort to revise the group home regulations has been underway for some time but gained urgency after the two suicides in 2002, state officials said.

Child welfare advocates said those deaths were evidence of systemic problems within the agencies responsible for monitoring the facilities.

McComb said the new regulations could have gone further to protect the vulnerable young people. His organization had pushed state officials to impose a ratio of one staff member for every four children at the homes -- something he estimated would cost $8 million to $12 million, he said.

"They decided it would be too expensive," he said. "So what's the standard? None."

McComb also said the state should have required higher training standards for staff living and working with group home children, helping them face their crises at all hours of the day and night.