My name is Michelle. I'm a sister, friend, auntie, student, niece... and a statistic. I was a foster child. A product of the care system. My journey after leaving foster care has highlighted many of the issues that care-experienced adults face, and by writing this I want to shine a light on the harsh realities that many children face once leaving the care system. Whether it’s drug addiction, homelessness, prison, neglect or abuse, or the struggles we can face in trying to find our identity.

Who Cares state that the resounding effects of pre-care experiences and being looked after makes care-experienced children and young people among the most vulnerable groups in our society. Most children and young people become looked after following abuse, neglect, loss, or parental alcohol or substance misuse. Many of the risk factors are present before entering care and can substantially alter their life course.

The group also states that 45% of care-experienced 15 to 16-year-olds suffer from diagnosable mental health disorders compared with just 10% of all children. The clear disparity tells us that there needs to be a direct response to the specific needs of the care-experienced population.

How do we create a response and begin to break down the obstacles care-experienced children face? To ensure their hopes, dreams and opportunities are preserved, and pave the way for the future generation of foster children to come? By creating a conversation – one that will highlight the adversity care-experienced adults have faced, in the hope that it will create change. I'm going to join in this conversation by speaking my truth.

This is my story...

Fear consumed me. I was staring into the eyes of pure evil as they stared back at me, piercing my soul. There was a fire in his eyes like a blind rage had swept over him. His fists were clenched. I collapsed on the floor shaking and terrified, I knew the moment had come … it was time to run.

Everything I had seen had changed me. How could I tell him or his friends that their behaviour was wrong when they believed it to be right? And me ... well, I became just a toy in their twisted alternative reality. Love and kindness had become a stranger to me. Violence and depravity had replaced any kind of humanity I once knew.

In 2009 I had reached the age of 21. I was the last of the foster children in my home. The children I had grown up with were homeless, in prison or had died. When my brother Craig reached the age of 21 he was told to leave the home by my foster family. He never knew where his birth family stayed. He went to stay in a hostel, and a few months later, he died of a heroin overdose.

Craig will never have a chance to tell his story. His life was cut short, his dreams had been taken. For the foster children, whose voices have been stolen, who have ever felt forgotten, disregarded, unloved, displaced by the care system. We need to speak up. Our voices have to be heard.

When my day came I packed my stuff and left. I was 21 and I knew at that moment that the family I had been living with for 13 years were no longer my family. As the weeks turned into months I kept phoning my foster family, only to be told, I will phone you next week. It’s nine years later… I'm still waiting on that call.

After leaving foster care I was vulnerable, afraid and depressed. But following months spent feeling abandoned and isolated, I decided it was time to find my place in the world. An overwhelming desire to be loved and accepted, quickly led me to get involved with a new group of acquaintances. These friends quickly became my family, and one in particular. His name was Paul.

The first couple of weeks were filled with laughter, joy and excitement. I was the happiest I have ever been. I had finally found my place, where I belonged – or so I thought. A dark thunder was brewing over me, ready to explode and consume me. I was entering a period of my life were violence and abuse would dominate every fibre of my being. I was about to become a victim of domestic abuse – another statistic.

Domestic abuse is something that is often hidden behind closed doors. There is no demographic with domestic abuse victims, it transcends all ages, genders, class, cultures and social standing – though it does disproportionately affect women. The official Scottish Government domestic abuse statistics for 2017-2018 show 59,541 police-recorded incidents, four out of five of which occurred in a home or dwelling. This won't be a true reflection on the total number, as it just regards incidents that have been reported.

The behaviour of Paul and his friends radically changed towards me one night when they began to shout at me and told me I was never to get on their wrong side otherwise I would pay the price for it. I would cower in the corner as Paul and his friends would scream abuse at me, I was a bitch, slut, disgusting, a foster child because no one loved me.

I ran upstairs and hid in the room, as my friend Rachel and other people stood in front of me and covered me like a human shield, to protect me from their blows, I was petrified as they began to shout that they were going to stab me. They turned on me like a thunder cloud, Paul's eyes were hollows of madness.

After that Paul and my other friends – yes, I still needed them as my friends; I still needed to belong there – began to threaten me, telling me what happens to people who speak up. I would hide in the bathroom shivering in fear as I became a prisoner in those walls. I left the room at one point and watched as they violently attacked other people. Paul later punched a boy and made him get down on his knees and beg forgiveness. Paul told me it was punishment for the boy becoming too friendly with me.

Another male in the same social circle later attacked me. I was flung across the room, pinned down with his hands on my throat. As I got up shaken and terrified, Paul told me that was what happened when I stepped out of line. He had the devil in his eyes.

I grabbed my stuff and left soon after, with a promise to myself that I was never going to see him or my friends again – a promise I would later break.

In the time I was gone, I met one of my former foster brothers, Rob. In the years since I’d last seen him he had drastically changed. His face was drawn in and scarred; years of drug abuse and unknown encounters had taken a toll on his physical appearance.

Rob told me he had been in and out of prison since leaving foster care, and when he wasn't in prison he was sleeping in skips. He said he would deliberately commit minor crimes to get back inside because the life he had in prison was better than the one outside. We exchanged stories of our lives, of what we’d been through since leaving foster care.

How did we end up here, I asked him. A tragic expression came across him. "Because we’re forgotten," he replied. I stared at him with tears in my eyes. I nodded knowingly – I understood. As we parted I watched him as he faded into the darkness, wondering what kind of life he was headed back to.

I began volunteering for a homeless charity, and as I began speaking to many of the homeless people on the streets of Glasgow, I soon learned that my story was not an isolated one. Many of the homeless people I spoke to had been through the care system. They would tell me their stories of heartache and abuse that they have had to endure, their own stories of self-discovery and how they ended up on the street.

The more people I spoke to the more the reality of the situation dawned on me. This is a problem … and one that needs to be addressed. Why have so many people who have been through the care system, ended up homeless on the street?

As time went on I began to speak to more care-experienced adults. I soon discovered that abuse and neglect was something many had encountered while in foster homes. I realised that some of the most vulnerable people in society had been fundamentally let down by a system that was meant to protect them, and until these issues are seriously addressed, opportunities are being missed to potentially save other children from the same situation.

I went to college in late August 2017. I loved it straight away and was so happy that I had finally found something I was so passionate about. It gave me focus, something to work towards … meaning to my life.

It was at this point that I ran into Paul again. He seemed changed – he was totally charming. It was like when I first met him – the fun, laughter and excitement were back.

But as the months rolled by the serenity and calm was slowly extinguished. My friends began to slip back into their old ways. They would take drugs most days and when they were drinking they would get violent towards anyone who was in their path. They would shout abuse at me and ridicule and humiliate me whenever people were in. The threats began again, they would warn me that my college course was a waste of time. People like me didn’t succeed, and I was dreaming if I ever thought I could.

Words had become a tool to beat me up with, and the psychological impact was beginning to destroy me. I began to distance myself from everyone around me – everything was great, I would tell them. It was all a deflection to how I was really feeling because inside I was broken.

I knew I had to get out. These people – I once regarded them as my friends, my family even – could ultimately cost me everything.

So when Paul and his friends were out I decided to use that window of opportunity to grab as much clothing as I could. I left that night with no money, leaving many of my personal belongings behind. I managed to find a safe place, with incredible support workers, and I can't thank them enough.

The beauty of escape is that, after the storm and rain have subsided, a rainbow appears. I’ve found my rainbow, if it wasn't for college and the incredible people I have met, I don't know how I would have made it through the storm. The trauma of abuse is an everyday battle, with scars that will never fully fade away.

One thing Paul and his friends wanted to take away from me was my voice, but by trying to do so, they gave me the determination and courage I needed to speak up. The experience has made me into the woman I’ve become –strong, brave and unstoppable.

I will work harder, dream bigger and love deeper now… and one day, when I finally get to where I want to be in life, I will owe it all to them.

The Scottish Prison Service official statistics regarding care-experienced children reveal that from 2011 a third of young offenders, and almost a third of the adult population, self-identify as care-experienced, and some practitioners estimate that around 50% of the adult population may have care experience.

The formal statistics on statutory homelessness state that 6% of all homeless applications in Scotland in 2017-2018 were from people who have been looked after by a local authority at some point (Scottish Government, 2018). This figure relies on self-declaration of care experience and does not include hidden homelessness numbers, with practitioners estimating that, in reality, between 30% and 50% of individuals who are homeless could be care-experienced.

In terms of what foster children experience after leaving care in terms of abuse, drug addiction, early death, I can't find those statistics. I hope by sharing this story it will encourage more care-experienced adults and victims of domestic abuse to speak up, seek help, join together to create change.

Tell your story, we all have a story to tell, we are not just a statistic, we are people and our truth needs to be told. Foster children should never be seen as a job, income, someone to be abused and disposed of once they reach a certain age. A family should be a family for life.

I opened my heart to a group of strangers in the hope of love in return, and pain was the price I paid for it. That chapter of my life has been buried, but it is behind me now. My justice is not revenge. It's raising an awareness and being part of a conversation that could potentially create a positive change in the future that could one day save someone's life.

And me ... well, I finally remember what it feels like to be happy again. My lust for life has returned and a new life adventure awaits me. One that will have a happy ending.

To the foster children I grew up with, my brother Craig and all the other foster children who have ever felt displaced, disregarded, lost and unloved. We matter!

We are not forgotten children, we are Scotland's children… and we won't be forgotten.

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the identity of those talked about in this article.