First person: 'My sister was lost in the care system'

Grace Pinto, 72

In 1937, at the age of 15, Jean Gambell was detained under the Lunacy Act, for stealing half a crown. Eventually cleared of theft, she was never released. In the intervening years, Jean was moved between care homes and was lost in the system. After years of searching, her family believed she had passed away. Until they stumbled upon a letter addressed to their deceased mother...

Jean was the eldest of 10 siblings, 13 years my senior. She was fun and bubbly and always had a smile on her face – that's the way I'll forever remember her. We all lived in an ordinary terraced house: number 8 Wilkinson Street, Birkenhead. Our father was a shipyard labourer. We had an ordinary life, were part of an ordinary family, until tragedy struck.

While working as a cleaner at a local doctor's surgery, Jean was arrested for stealing the equivalent of 12 and a half pence. She was 15 years old and was put in a mental home for being "feeble-minded". She never came home again.

I was only two years old at the time and couldn't comprehend what had happened. All I knew was that one day she was there, and the next she'd gone. Everything was very hush-hush after that. My father became very withdrawn and spent all his time writing. Now I know he was campaigning for his daughter's release. Even when Jean was finally cleared of theft, they never let her go. In the end, my father committed suicide.

My mother used to take us kids to visit Jean every Saturday. We would play with her in the hospital grounds. Jean soon found a chap there, called Paddy. I used to ask her why she didn't marry Paddy; she said the nurses would never allow it.

I visited Jean for years, taking my own children when they were old enough. Sometimes she would come to our family house, escorted by two hospital wardens.

After a series of reforms in the system, Jean was moved from the hospital. We kept asking where they'd taken her, but we didn't get any answers. Eventually, we gave up hope of finding her, believing she must be dead. Then, in the summer of 2007, a computer-generated letter addressed to my late mother's home alerted us to Jean's existence. After all these wasted decades, we found she was living in a nursing home in nearby Macclesfield. It was unbelievable.

As soon as I found out, I went to see my dear sister. She was old and frail but there wasn't a line on her face. She knew exactly who I was, and she kept clinging on to my hand. It was amazing: she was still smiley and upbeat, never a bitter word. Apparently she'd been asking after my brothers and I by name all these years. The staff thought she was rambling. Jean died just weeks after we found her again. I'll never forgive what happened. Jean's life was taken from her. She was deprived of all the simple pleasures in life, and we were deprived of her.

firstperson@independent.co.uk

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?