A 2,000 mile sprint across the United States. A rushed, legally questionable adoption in Arkansas. A British woman accused of practicing dark magic. An intervention by Tony Blair. The story of the “Internet Twins” — perhaps better known as the Money for Babies scandal — had so many bizarre twists and such a sizable cast of eccentric characters that it could fill not just a tabloid but an entire newsstand. In January 2001, after The sun broke the story of how a couple from Buckley in North Wales paid £8,200 to adopt nine-month-old mixed-race twins over the internet…well, basically it did. Journalists couldn’t get enough of the story, especially when it emerged that another couple – this one from the US – had also paid thousands to adopt the same girls. Within weeks both couples and The twins’ biological mother was all vying for custody.
As journalists, politicians, social workers and police officers all pounced on the story, it split and fractured. From one angle, it seemed to be about the dark potential of new technologies – the adoption of the “net babies” overseas seemed to confirm fears that the emerging internet was a corrupt and lawless zone where everything came at a price. From another perspective, it was an ancient story: greed, manipulation, trafficking in society’s most vulnerable. But what if those two angles weren’t quite right? What if the truth were a little less sensational… if it was just as messy?
It has been more than 20 years since the twins first arrived in the UK and returned to the United States a few months later in the care of a third – and final – adoptive family. The idea of digging through all of history’s headlines, chat show appearances, and court filings seems like an almost insurmountable task. That’s perhaps partly why in Prime Video’s new documentary series Three mothers, two babies and a scandalThe story is told three times and from different perspectives.
We hear from the twins’ biological mother, Tranda Wecker, who put the kids up for adoption through a shady online agency. We’re hearing from California’s Vickie Allen, who – through the agency – paid around £4,000 for the twins. We also hear from Judith Kilshaw, the Welsh woman who – with her husband Alan – ‘bought’ the twins from Tranda, whom she brought back from the Allens two months after the first adoption. She had told Vickie and her husband Richard that she was taking them on a weekend visit when she truthfully turned them over to the Kilshaws. At its core, the aim of this three-part series seems to be to give these women – the “three mothers” of the title – their voices back.
But because, as one American journalist explained at the time, “this case involves fraud, kidnapping, the internet” and hard cash, the narrative also bounces and spins like a turbulent roller coaster. Each woman’s particular narrative clashes with and challenges the others. This means that the series is not a straightening of the story, but rather a zigzag. The only definitive truth might be that there aren’t any – that neither Judith, nor Vickie, nor Tranda are entirely right or wrong. At the beginning of the first episode of the series, an FBI agent involved in the case sums it up rather neatly: “It was a soup sandwich from the start — there was one big sloppy mess.”
Another person who sums it up pretty well is none other than Judith Kilshaw herself. “The harder you tried to get it right, the worse it got,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Wrexham. This clarity may surprise anyone who followed the “cash for babies” scandal at the time. In Parliament, Tony Blair declared the ‘sale’ of the babies ‘disgusting’ and the Kilshaws eventually declared bankruptcy. Judith was even dubbed “Britain’s most hated woman” by one newspaper.
When I speak to her a few days before the documentaries are released, Judith has a nasty cough and is in the process of installing a heat pump in her house. That means she sometimes has to jump up in mid-sentence to let people in and out, ask about work, and drag her pets away from the door. But this hustle and bustle is endearing and, it must be said, quite to be expected. When the Kilshaws adopted the twins in 2000, they had four dogs, four cats, a couple of horses and a pig named Philip – he was often encouraged by Judith to do tricks for visiting journalists. This menagerie of animals was just one of the reasons why Judith, of the “three mothers” in this story, received a lot of tabloid taunts. It also had something to do with how she smoked, how she spoke, and how she dressed. Judith berated the press, joked, demanded revenge and once arrived at the High Court wearing a necklace that said ‘Foxy’. According to some tabloids, Judith was also a witch who used voodoo dolls and “the harshest forms of black magic” to get the twins back.
With an obvious instinct to make a bad situation worse, the more media appearances and interviews the Kilshaws gave, the more their credibility was undermined. For Judith, however, this was a result of the aggressive tabloids of the time. “The behavior of the journalists was appalling,” she says today. Speaking of “manic” four days later The sun‘s exclusive went to press – as the Kilshaws hid at Mold’s Beaufort Park Hotel to target and fend off the press, police and social services – Judith said she saw reporters “fighting each other and trying to get at the story.” to approach”. She is adamant: “I think it showed the very worst of journalism.” But she also freely admits that she would “stand there and give as much as I got – no newspaper owns me”.
In the documentaries, old footage shows Judith being chased out of court and into a car by a crowd of paparazzi. Hordes of cameras pour through the open door into the back seat. The car begins to move and Judith holds the door wide open, letting the metal slam against a set of expensive lenses. It’s hard not to think of Britney Spears, who a few years later, with her freshly shaved head, attacked a paparazzi’s car with an umbrella. But it’s also hard to believe that Judith Kilshaw’s attitude from the start was comparable to throwing a red rag at a rampaging bull. Is the victim to blame? Or is her odd mix of belligerence and naivety preventing her from seeing herself as anything but a victim?
Judith is undeniably eccentric, in a way that could well be read as defiant and cheeky. At one point in our conversation, she starts off with an unexpected and rather lengthy story about how she got into a row with a clerk at her local supermarket over tote bags. The anecdote culminates in Judith telling the cashier she will “stay [the bag] in my ass – and if you keep bothering me, I’ll stick it up your But what belies that is the cheeky and anarchic humor with which she tells stories – the exaggerations and embellishments she sprinkles through our conversation, and the way she mocks herself. She describes one incident as “a correct footstep”.
If I were someone rich, wealthy or of stature, they could not have written what they wrote
Despite her experience with the press, Judith still has an open, easy-going attitude and an innate appreciation for the absurd. It’s clear to see how the media of the early noughties turned this career-boosting roar into something much weirder than it actually is. But I also sense a vulnerability in Judith that wasn’t allowed to appear 20 years ago. “[The press] will find a weak link,” she says, “and when they find a weak link, they go hunting. And I was the weak link.” The Kilshaws have been accused by all sides of being attention seekers, but listening to Judith now, it’s perfectly clear she didn’t relish her position in the limelight. They just made the fatal mistake of thinking they could have some control over the narrative. That they could, in Judith’s words, “get it right.”
“I found it kind of depressing,” she says. “If I were someone richer, wealthier, or of stature, they could not have written what they wrote. But as soon as they realize they can’t be sued or don’t have the means, they write whatever they want.”
It is impossible not to have sympathy for them. At the same time, here in this documentary film, she is once again immersed in the media attention. How does she feel returning to the story two decades later? “Okay, really,” she says. “I think if it sets a record straight…” Though she seems more aware now that that might not be possible, she says the docuseries “can’t quite set it straight.” She later admits that she believes it won’t change the narrative around her. “It’s a bit like Matt Hancock,” says Judith in a typical conversational leap — one that’s beginning to make sense once you decide to stick with it. “People have views on what they think of him – he’s gone and he’s faced all the trials [and] Maybe it will change some people’s minds.” A similar “maybe” hangs over the documentary as well. “There’s a chance to change minds, but it’s not definitive, is it?”
If opinions haven’t completely changed, that could be it Three women, two babies and a scandal remains a partial retelling. There are three women who have no voice in this – particularly the woman who is arguably the main culprit in the resulting chaos. She’s Tina Johnson, dubbed the “baby broker” because she runs the online adoption agency that first took fees from the Allens, the Kilshaws, and many others. As she has declined to comment, she is only shown in cursory images.
When I ask Judith what she thinks of Tina Johnson being relatively absent from the show, she’s typically stubborn. “I thought, ‘If she was making fun of her, she should have stood up and been counted and said, ‘I run this agency. Yes, I was responsible for it, and that’s how it worked, and this is where I run my office,” she says. “But no, she went under.” To Judith, this proved that Johnson “doesn’t have the guts for her beliefs.”
The greatest absence in the story, however, is not Tina Johnson, but the twins themselves. The two girls at the center of this storm, now in their early twenties and living and studying in the United States under different names, remain mute and at a distance. Neither the viewer nor their “three mothers” ever hear from them. But ultimately it’s perhaps that determined calm in the face of such a din that is the strongest statement of all.
“Three Moms, Two Babies and a Scandal” is now streaming on Prime Video