When I was in Maine a few years ago interviewing people about the state's attempts to turn its dysfunctional children and family services system around, officials there were trying to break one bad habit in particular: Front-line caseworkers and their supervisors were loath to consider relatives when it came to placing kids.

"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," was a phrase I heard on numerous occasions in Augusta, and I've heard it on numerous occasions in other states, from New York to Indiana to Colorado. That is, if the parents are bad news, then it's more than likely the grandparents, aunts and uncles aren't much better.

But intuition breaks both ways. Which is why for the past few years more and more human services agencies are taking a closer look at kinship placements. The essential reason for this trend is obvious. Being separated from a parent or parents is traumatic enough without compounding the trauma by placing a child with strangers. In theory, at least, kinship placements mean a child winds up with someone he or she knows, and also someone who is likely to live close to the child's home. The Annie E. Casey Foundation now includes kinship placement as one of its performance measures in its annual Kids Count Data Center.

This appears in our free, twice monthly Human Services newsletter. Not already a subscriber? Click here.

As with everything else, though, it's never that simple. States and localities are struggling with how to classify kinship placements and whether "kin" ought to be reimbursed like any other foster care placement. There is also the question of vetting of kin and whether or not relatives ought to be licensed like any other foster care provider.

In California, where counties administer children and family services with state oversight, agencies have been piloting a kinship care program in 11 counties focused on at-risk adolescents who have been placed in relative care by the juvenile courts. Under the program, the court actually orders parents to disclose all known relatives. Relative's homes are exempt from foster home licensing requirements, but have to be assessed by a social worker using standards equivalent to what's required under the foster care licensing rules. Families who take in children eligible for foster care can receive payments of up to around $600 a month, and families taking care of kids not eligible for foster care receive payments of up to around $400 a month.

The program provides funds to help build community-based support services, including "support groups, respite, information and referral, recreation, mentoring/tutoring, provision of furniture, clothing, and food, transportation, legal assistance, and many other support services needed by kin families." It also offers permanency support services to relatives who agree to legal guardianship or outright adoption.

Two other features of the program are important to consider: "When a child is placed in foster care by a county, the county social worker and court must give preferential consideration to certain relatives (grandparent, aunt, uncle or sibling)." Under California's rules, meanwhile, only counties that have placed at least 40 percent of kids with relatives are eligible for kinship support funding.

This sort of overtly stated preference has led to an interesting debate within the children and families community nationally. In particular, can you go too far when it comes to a preference for kinship placements? Some caseworks say they are feeling pressure from the top to make kinship placements when such placements may not be in the best interest of the child. As one front-line social worker told me recently, "Sometimes it feels like we're doing that at all costs just to make the numbers look better when we should be thinking more about the kids."

Given the technological tools available now, it is much easier to find and vet relatives, and clearly relatives ought to be the placement of first resort if they check out. Going back to the bad old days of assuming relatives are bad apples would be tragic. But there will be times when the zeal to place kids with family may get in the way of making decisions based on what is really in the best interest of the child. "You can throw all the tools at me that you want," an agency manager recently confided in me. "You can tell me to do this stuff and that. But at the end of the day my job is the safety, well being and permanency of kids."

More from Health & Human Services