As the first American woman to win four gold medals in a single Olympic Games, 19-year-old Simone Biles has not only brought international acclaim to the U.S. gymnastics program but has also drawn attention to the power of adoption. Simone spent her early years in and out of foster care after she and her three siblings were removed from the care of their single mother, who struggled with drug addiction. When she was six years old, her maternal grandfather, Ron Biles, and his wife, Nellie, adopted Simone and her younger sister (her older siblings were adopted by another relative).

“The social worker called and said the kids were in foster care,” Ron Biles told Time about their decision to take the girls. “I said, send them to me.” What a difference that decision made in Simone’s life.

The Biles brought the girls home to Texas, where they raised them in a loving, Christian home, and enrolled Simone in gymnastics. The rest, as they say, is Olympic history.

Simone’s inspirational story is an example of what can happen when extended family members, or “kin,” step up to provide care for a child who is unable to live with his or her parents. In Simone’s case, her grandparents adopted her and her sister—permanently removing them from the foster care system. But in other cases, relatives or close family friends temporarily provide a safe home for a child who would otherwise go into foster care.

According to a 2012 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation:

  • Roughly 2.7 million American children lived with a relative, often their grandparents.
  • Of these children, nearly 104,000 were placed in state-supervised formal “kinship care.”
  • Additionally, “approximately 400,000 children who came to the attention of the child welfare system, but were diverted from state custody, live with kin as an alternative to foster care.”

A new Child Trends research brief examines the growing practice of “kinship diversion,” which occurs “when a child welfare agency facilitates the placement of a child with relatives or ‘fictive kin’ (i.e., not related by blood but close to the family) when that child cannot remain safely at home with his or her parents.” It found that kinship diversion is mainly used by child welfare agencies to provide the family—instead of the courts—with more control over what happens to the child, and to help avoid placing the child in foster care. According to Child Trends, “In 2011, informal kinship placements were the most common out-of-home placement for children who had a maltreatment report.”

Over the past 20 years, the report notes, “there has been an increase in federal and state emphasis on kinship care and family involvement in child welfare agency policies and practices.” That emphasis is likely driven in part by concerns about the negative outcomes for children in foster care. Research shows that children who are removed from their families and placed in foster care often suffer short and long term negative effects, including emotional, behavioral, and academic problems. The foster care experience can be especially difficult for children placed into group settings. Even though the majority of foster care families provide loving homes for children in their care, in most circumstances, being placed with a family member, such as a grandparent, is better for children. According to the AECF, compared to kids in the general foster care system, children placed in kinship care adjust better “and are less likely to experience behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders.”

There are federal policy guidelines for kinship diversion for children in state custody, according to Child Trends. But “there are no guidelines on when kinship diversion is appropriate, how to assess whether a particular caregiver is appropriate, or what services should be available in kinship arrangements.”

To shed more light on the practice, Child Trends researchers conducted a qualitative study involving interviews and focus groups with a total of 154 individuals, including caseworkers, caregivers, and court personnel, in six jurisdictions in one state. Study participants reported that the parents often “drive kinship diversion in cases that do not involve abuse and/or neglect (e.g., parent incarceration or hospitalization),” while the agency will suggest kinship diversion in other cases. Ultimately, a parent has to agree with the plan before a child is placed with a relative.

Practices and policies involving kinship diversion varied across jurisdictions in the study, such as “inconsistent” policies for relative and home assessments. These assessments typically include caseworkers conducting home safety checks, background checks, drug screenings, and financial inquiries of the family member providing care. Unfortunately, the study found that “None of the local jurisdictions have formal assessment guidelines for caseworkers to follow, and practices are not standardized across units within an agency.”

There is also a general lack of information about support services for kinship caregivers. These services, which are standard for foster care parents, include agency monitoring and financial assistance (such as foster care subsidy payments).

Despite increased support for the practice, debate exists among child welfare experts about the use of kinship diversion, particularly over how involved the state should be in the process, and whether or not all family caregivers should be licensed as foster parents. Critics point out that diversion practices vary widely, are poorly regulated in most states, and could potentially expose child welfare agencies to legal challenges. In addition, they argue that many families providing care for children who would otherwise be in foster care need support services from the state. That’s because kinship caregivers are more likely to be poor, elderly, single, and unemployed.

The increasing practice of kinship diversion among child welfare agencies is good news for children who can no longer remain with their parents. But as the Child Trends report notes, “This change in practice also requires a culture shift at the front line from protecting the child from his/her immediate family to empowering and supporting the child’s extended family to ensure the safety and well-being of the child.” The challenge for child welfare agencies going forward is how best to provide the support, services, and limited oversight children and their kinship caregivers need without unnecessary government interference in the family.