Politicians are often criticised for not listen-ing, but members of Holyrood's Education Committee were reduced to rapt silence earlier this week by the account that young care leaver Tony McDonald gave of his life prior to being taken into care.

"My stepdad had been killed and my mum went downhill. All the windows in my house were boarded up, and getting smashed because it was known that the house was being used for drugs," he told them.

"The door was always getting forced. We had a plank of wood to keep it shut."

First known to social work when he was four, Tony and his younger brother and sisters lived in fear, until he was finally taken into care at the age of nine, he explained.

"I was pure terrified, all the time. Different guys were always in and out of our house. People were kicking in the door, looking for other people. There were two rooms where there were holes in the cupboards leading into the loft and I used to sit there in the loft and just cry. Or I would have fantasies about living a different life, with a different mum and dad."

It would be hard to imagine a more compelling testimony for members of the Scottish Parliament committee who are taking evidence for an ongoing inquiry into how decisions are made about when and whether children should be taken into care

"Social workers came once a week. I had five, six, seven social workers. It was nuts. How could nobody see there was anything wrong?" Tony told them. "You don't need experience or special understanding to have seen this was unliveable. That's automatic."

The extraordinary session at the offices of the young people's support charity Who Cares? Scotland was jointly arranged by them and the lottery-funded Life Changes Trust.

It challenged expectations. You might expect young people to complain loudly about having ever been taken into care; or to express regret that more was not done to help their families cope.

But while some did feel that the situation might have been avoided if more resources had been on offer to support parents, seven of the nine young people who met with MSPs insisted they had actually been taken into care far too late. The other two had been taken into care while they were still babies.

Four MSPs attended for all or part of the afternoon – education committee convener Stewart Maxwell, deputy convener Neil Findlay and their committee colleagues Clare Adamson and Neil Bibby.

In a series of sessions, they heard about young people's experiences prior to, during and after leaving state care.

The accounts were "extremely powerful", Mr Maxwell said. "We wouldn't have had the same free-flowing conversation in the committee room. It was always going to be crucial to talk to young people themselves and we wanted to be in an environment people feel comfortable with."

While the four MSPs taking part will report back on their findings to other members of the committee, it now looks likely that several of the young people will travel to Edinburgh to give evidence on the official record to the full committee.

The politicians learned a number of important lessons, Mr Maxwell added. "I wasn't aware that it was common for one child to be taken into care and for the rest to be left, or the extent to which violent or difficult behaviour can trigger a decision more quickly."

This was a key part of Tony's story, but not his alone. "In the end I was taken into care because of my behaviour. I used to be pure daft. But fear controlled my whole life. I also used to pee the bed."

While Tony's behaviour saw him removed from the chaos of his family home, unbelievably his siblings were not removed.

"My wee brother died. It was only after then that my sisters were take into a care home," he recounted, adding redundantly. "That was far too late."

Other young people who gave evidence told a similar story about what eventually triggered their removal from the family home. For one young man, his mother's drug use didn't lead to action until he assaulted his stepdad. "The social workers just make a visit with a tick box. Drug user with three kids: tick. Then they go on to the next case, who would be my auntie or a friend down the street."

Another young woman describes how her mother cleaned up the family home to pull the wool over social workers' eyes every time they visited. She said: "It wasn't until I was running away and getting arrested that anyone started to listen. If I'd been taken into care when I should have, I wouldn't have gone through so much."

Several of the young people felt at-risk children should have access to an advocate to speak up for them even before they are brought into care. "It can be hard to say anything", said Gemma McGregor. "If there is an advocate, workers wouldn't have anything to hide behind."

The recognition of several young people of the benefits of being in care was striking. Before the session with MSPs another young person told me how her mother's drinking had led her father to abandon his children with their belongings on the street outside the pub while their mother was still inside.

Being in care was a revelation. She said: "I was already halfway down the road to drink and drugs. In care I just got this love and support. It was as if I went to bed one day and got up and everything had changed."

Before writing its report, the committee, which has already heard from parents with learning disabilities whose children have been taken into care, will also meet with representatives of the children's hearing system, and visit Glasgow's family intervention pilot in the new year. "We will produce a report and then we want the full parliament to debate it," Mr Maxwell said.

Care leaver Nikita Connelly says it is vital that their input results in reform. "Are they going to do anything about it? We want to see things changing," she insists.

Meanwhile Who Cares? Scotland will next year celebrate it's 35th year of speaking out for children in care, and will mark this with a renewed anti-stigma campaign and a request to people in Scotland to pledge to listen to children in care.

For more information, you can follow them on Facebook or on Twitter @WhoCaresScot or visit www.whocaresscotland.org.