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 My father became very withdrawn and spent all his time writing.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

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