Professionals are handing back power to parents over the future of their children, however traumatised relationships may be. Glenda Cooper reports
"DEAR DAD" the letter starts. "Hope you are fine". It could be the beginning of a letter from any child but it goes on to inform Stewart that James will not be spending Christmas with him. Then at the end comes the chilling signature: "James, not your son"

James is, says his father, the most "downright cantakerous little sod I've ever known". His mother thinks "you can't live with someone like that". His step-aunt says "I've hardly ever seen him get a cuddle. I just think he's looking for a reaction".

Surrounded by beer and cigarettes, they are all sitting round discussing 12-year-old James and where he is going to live. At present he lives with his father, Stewart, and his stepmother, Sam, but Stewart has called social services, worried that unless he gets help he will be seriously violent towards his son.

The fact that James and his extended family are all sitting round discussing his future rather than social workers making the decisions in isolation is because of a new kind of project - Family Group Conferences (FGCs) - which were started in New Zealand and Australia and are now being piloted in 25 local authorities in Britain. It aims to shift primary responsibility for vital decisions away from the professionals and back to the family.

Britain has been moving towards such an approach to childcare for some time. In the light of numerous high profile inquiries, such as those into the deaths of Maria Colwell, Jasmine Beckford and the Cleveland abuse allegations, which found social workers both failing to protect children's rights or listen to parents, the 1989 Children Act set a new agenda for childcare policy. It said that the interests of the child were paramount, advocating professionals working in partnerships with families to make decisions.

James is just the sort of child that a conference was designed to help. He is lively but very difficult and has been shuffled unsuccessfully between his divorced parents, both of whom have new partners and small children. His disruptive behaviour and seven-year-old reading age mean that both Stewart and James's mother, Sonia, have said they cannot cope with him. But if they cannot find a solution then he will be have to go into care.

The family agreed to have their conference filmed - the first time this has ever been done - by award-winning director Roger Graef, whose previous work includes Police, which won a Bafta award and changed the way police dealt with rape victims. The film, shown on Channel 4 tonight is to be used for training social workers and childcare professionals.

James's family is a large and complex one, with step-parents, half siblings, step-relatives. Both his parents are unemployed, living without cars or telephones and have alcohol and violence problems. Carole, his step-aunt, is initially cynical: "I think it's all going to end in a free-for-all," she comments.

The family does not want James to go into care - both his stepmother and mother were in care and feel they were "worse off for it". James himself feels he wants some "time out" from the family - maybe to go to boarding school or something. The family have met on neutral ground at a leisure centre, where the bar is open, attempting to decide what to do with the help of a group co-ordinator, James's counsellor and headteacher.

Family conferences can be very explosive, says Hilary Horan of Barnado's who is co-ordinating the project. "You'll get some shouting and some crying and people storming out. But one of the skills of the co-ordinator is to get them to focus on the common bond. You are asking them to put aside for the day all the arguments about who wasn't invited to the wedding or who was left the silver and to think about the child. We've been amazed at the kind of things families will put on one side because they all want to be involved in what happens to the child."

In James's case, Stewart admits that he does hit his son. "He gets me so wound up I slap him," says Stewart. "We're so alike, it's like me and my dad." Sam the stepmother says that James is terrified of his father. Carole says that James has been slapped about a lot.

But the professionals stay on the sidelines as the family argues and debates, eventually deciding that James will live with his dad during the week and spend alternate weekends with his mum and step-aunts. Both parents and their partners agree to have counselling for their problems and Stewart also agrees to have counselling for his alcohol problem.

A study of four pilot projects using FGCs over two years showed that more mothers and fathers attended them than child welfare conferences. This was particularly marked in the case of fathers, where 61 per cent attended family conferences compared with 21 per cent attending child welfare conferences. Re-referrals, re-abuse or use of the courts was also reduced to 6 per cent, as opposed to the national average, which is between one quarter and one third.

FGCs are also used as part of Thames Valley Police's programmes with first-time offenders of all ages. After 18 months in use, recidivism rates are down to 4 per cent, compared with a national average of 30 per cent.

However, there are problems yet to be resolved. In some families - for instance where there is a history of child sex abuse - some social workers think FGCs should not be carried out, for fear of the balance being tipped too far in favour of the family. And as a spokeswoman for James's social services points out, families must learn that they do have to take responsibility for what happens if they go ahead with FGCs.

Graef's film goes back to the family a month later at their second conference. James's parents have not received counselling yet - they say because the waiting list is so long, although a spokeswoman for the council says social services had acted quickly but the family could not decide what kind of counselling it wanted.

The family attacks Stewart for not giving James his Christmas present of a stereo and James says he doesn't want to see his father anymore "only Sam and the kids". Carole and her partner took James away after Stewart threatened to beat him up.

James has been put into foster care and is going to boarding school. The film shows a visibly shaken Stewart unable to look at his son as he comes to collect his belongings for the last time. He hands over the stereo and as the car finally pulls away he lets out a sob as James's half sister yells "James" over and over.

Did it make a difference that the family was involved? At a seminar for social workers and care professionals last week Carole said yes, it did make them feel more in control about what happened: "I suppose I discovered how bossy I was!" she laughed. "No, I think it was useful because although we didn't get what we wanted, we got the best thing for James. But at least we understood more what was happening."

Witness: Keeping it in the Family, tonight, 9pm, Channel 4.