Three Mothers, Two Babies and a Scandal (Prime Video) is a thoroughly gripping three-part documentary, though as it begins with a woman denying that she was “buying and selling babies”, it’s hard to see how this tale could have been anything but fascinating. It could, however, have been salacious, and it is a testament to the makers that it manages to be both engrossing as well as sensitive to all involved.
It tells the story of three women, the mothers of the title, who became involved in an adoption scandal partially caused by the unregulated earlyish days of the internet. In the late 1990s, Tranda became pregnant with twin girls while a single mother to three other children. After losing her job, Tranda investigated putting the babies up for adoption when they were born, and found an agency online called Caring Heart.
Caring Heart first sent the twins to a family in California, to a couple named Vickie and Richard, who already had a two-year-old adopted son. There was an agreement, of sorts – though each party disputes the nature of it here – that the adoption would be open, meaning Tranda could call and visit the girls and be kept informed about their lives. But after two months, Tranda came to take the twins for the weekend. She never brought them back.
What happens next is astonishing, and as you watch each episode, that feeling of astonishment only grows. A British couple, Judith and Alan, had four children but wanted more, and after a failed attempt at IVF, and amid concerns about being rejected by the British adoption system, they decided to go overseas. Again, they came to Caring Heart. Again, they adopted the twins, whom Tranda had taken back from Vickie, and they took them back to Wales.
“It was a soup sandwich from the beginning,” says former FBI agent William Dayhoff, an early internet expert who ended up investigating the case. “It was a big sloppy mess.” That description barely scratches the surface. It quickly became a huge international story, and how to resolve the issue of where the girls belonged was not immediately clear to anyone. Tranda was accused of selling her babies; Vickie’s attempts to get the children she thought of as hers back upended her life in many extraordinary and horrible ways, and Judith – well, anyone who remembers the story from the enormous amount of coverage at the time may remember that Judith was a character then, and remains a character now. She has a spectacularly creative turn of phrase, at one point describing Vickie’s brother Rickie as “Very denim. And irate.” Oprah Winfrey hosted a televised sit-down between the families in 2001; “You tend to mouth off a lot,” was her assessment of Judith.
There are a few absent voices here. The twins, understandably, have different identities and wish to maintain their privacy, while Caring Heart boss Tina Johnson offers no comment, despite one seeming very necessary by the end. There are a few shots that I have come to think of as Cunk-ish – people looking off into the distance, silently, just as the sun begins to set – but it doesn’t distract from what is a desperately compelling story. It twists and turns like a thriller, but for all of the shocking developments that come crashing in, it keeps a clear head. It gives a vivid sense of the media circus around the story, and how that must have influenced the steps that were taken.
It also asks questions about the internet and commerce – and that is a grotesque turn of phrase, I know, given that this is about children and adoption, but that is where it takes us – that are not irrelevant in the current climate. But it never forgets that there are babies at the heart of all this, and that these are real women and real families. It peels away the layers of motivation, starting with the ones shown on the news and on the chatshows, and moving towards the ones that are revealed, slowly, over the course of what must have been long and arduous interviews. There is a lot of sadness at the core of this sorry saga, in which nothing is quite as it first appears.