It has been 17 years since 14-year-old Charlene Downes went missing from her hometown of Blackpool, England in the fall of 2003. Her story begins as a daunting missing person’s case turned presumed murder, to a sensationalized media frenzy. From he said she said speculations to inconclusive evidence; this 3-part Vice Documentary took me for a ride with unpredictable twists and turns. Some parts will have you up in arms in how a case as sensitive as Downes was handled. But ultimately it will have you questioning the ethics of our police departments and media outlets.
The documentary begins describing the last moments Downes was seen from loved ones. Here we are introduced to the major players in this investigation. Charlene’s parents, Robert and Karen Downes, her older sister Rebecca, seedy neighborhood fixtures Iyad Albattikhi and his business partner Mohammed Reveshi, and the authorities themselves. Almost immediately you are grappled with the fact that Charlene Downes was not ever in a safe space.
Her homelife was chaotic. Downes’ parents were enabling a lifestyle that Charlene had no way of escaping. Strange men, some of them convicted pedophiles, would frequent the home as guests of Robert. Her mother Karen would be too afraid to speak up. Oblivious to the danger they welcomed into their home.
When Charlene was not at home, she would frequent areas of town known for older men with an unhealthy penchant for grooming young, vulnerable girls into sexual activities. Authorities suspected Charlene being one of these young girls who fell victim to this. Admittedly, a lot of the pedophilia content is cringeworthy. It’s truly unnerving to hear the women in this documentary come forward as being victims of many of the men featured in the series.
What I did appreciate about the format of this documentary was the presentation of all vantage points. It does give the viewer a chance to hear the sides of all the individuals who would be involved in Charlene’s case. But perhaps, the most thought-provoking factor of this documentary was Charlene herself. How her tragedy would be buried in the sideshow media circus. Not to mention Charlene’s own parents capitalizing in her disappearance with a gross display of a fake united front for a tabloid in conjunction with a subsequent book release.
It is difficult to say how most of us would act in a situation like this. Losing a loved one is not a prerequisite in life experience we ask for. But the bottom line is I can’t help but harp over the obvious after watching this documentary. The systems put in place to protect children worldwide fail time and time again. More brazenly solidified is the fact that the adults who should be protecting the children are often the ones who are inflicting the most heinous type of pain to them. The fact that Charlene was not even safe within her own home should have been more than a red flag. Yet she was subjected to the abuse and torment of strange men allowed in her home by her parents. Charlene predicably had nowhere to turn and lived a majority of her life being reckless because she felt there was nothing else to lose.
This just didn’t happen in some dark corner of the world. It happened in a busy, bustling city where many of us reside. There will be another Charlene Downes failed by the people around her. Another Gabriel Fernandez abused in plain sight to a blind system who refuses to help. I believe it not only begins with changing the system but holding adults and authorities more accountable with the protection of children.
If you would like to view this 3-part documentary, check it out here. All 3 parts are available to watch on YouTube.