' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Barbara Walters was no fan of adoption refom

Monday, January 2, 2023

Barbara Walters was no fan of adoption refom


While the media is rightfully pouring ink and airtime out over the death of trailblazer Barbara Walters at 93, I'm reading about her and looking for somewhat different references than the general public: her relationship to adoption. Walters adopted a daughter, Jacqueline, in 1968, two years after I gave up my daughter for adoption.

By 1976 Walters was hosting a show that would be the prequel to The View. Called Not for Women Only, she presided over a panel of experts, with knowledgeable audience members sitting at round tables close to the front to be easily be interviewed. One day the topic was the adoption-reform movement, specifically adoptees searching for their natural mothers. Florence Fisher, the adoptee sparkplug who had ignited this tinder keg like no one before her, and I were present as those "knowledgeable" people on the subject. I'd already gone public as a woman who had relinquished a child by then, and had appeared on the Today show and in the Op-ed pages of the New York Times. Knowing the blowback I had received by coming out as one of "those women," I was expecting hostility. I have no clue who the supposed experts on the panel were--certainly there was no one espousing our point of view, most likely it was adoption lawyers and agency owners and social workers--and eventually Florence and I and a few others were able to speak. 

I do not remember specifically what I said, but it must have been along with lines of never forgetting my daughter and always hoping to meet her one day. I don't know if I added "but I don't want to take her from her other parents, I just want to know her," because back then I was saying that all the time, hoping to allay the deep-rooted fears of adoptive parents everywhere. After all, to them I represented the bogeyman of their adoption: the natural mother who didn't die, didn't go away, didn't shut up. The other mother who had given birth to their child. She was alive! And kicking! 

All I do recall from that encounter with Walters is knowing that she resented me and Florence. There were other adoptees there too--and maybe even another natural mother, but I don't remember who they were. (If anyone does, please leave a comment.) There was smoldering resentment--and fear--in Walters' attitude that day.

After that I noticed that whenever Walters did talk about adoption, she conveyed an attitude of wariness about unsealing birth records for adoptees. In the early nineties, when the Baby Jessica (DeBoer/Schmidt) case became media fodder as the natural parents tried to reclaim their daughter, Walters did a special on the case, leaving no doubt where her sympathies lie. For those who don't remember, Robbie and Jan DeBoer fought the natural mother (and later father) for years in the media and in court, while the courts diddled. It is worth nothing that the natural mother, Cara Clausen, asked for her daughter back three weeks after she relinquished her; as the legal fight ground on, the court let the girl stay with the Deboers, and thus the DeBoers were able to create a cause celebre with the media almost universally siding with them, adoptive parents. In fact, I seem to have been the only journalist writing the other side of the story. 

But back to Walters. At some point she did do a story about her daughter--who had some troubled years as a hellion--and it showed her reuniting with the natural birth mother. What struck me was how alike they looked and dressed: hippie all the way, with a big skirt and dangling earrings, so unlike the tailored outfits Walters always wore. I haven't found any follow up stories about their relationship, but I haven't looked long and hard today. 

In doing some digging today, I found this about the Walters' adoption: "I had had three miscarriages and my husband and I decided that we would adopt a child,” she said during a  2014 interview. “We had dinner one night with a couple we rarely saw and the woman said that she had a little girl who was blonde and blue-eyed, and they wanted to adopt a boy … who was going to be tall. They didn’t want the girl. So, we said, ‘We’ll take the girl!’” (It appears that they did get that baby, and that it was through a private, not agency, adoption.)

If one needed proof she was afraid of the natural mother, Walters didn't take time off when she adopted, because, as she admitted in 2002 to NBC, "I really didn’t want the biological mother to know that Jackie had been adopted by us, [so I] just kept right on working.” 

There are lengthy obits of Walters, and the ones I read or watched on television, make scant reference to her daughter. The New York Times merely said: "She and her second husband, the theatrical producer raised a daughter, Jacqueline, during her time at Today." The next paragraph only notes that Walters is "survived by her daughter, Jacqueline Danforth." No mention is made of adoption. Which is often par for the course about adoption in the media. I did see a morning show once where Walters' and her daughter had some sort of rapprochement, after a lengthy break. Or maybe her daughter just sent her a congratulatory note about something, but in any event, it was a happy moment for Walters. 

When there was a big scandal in the New York State Legislature a few years ago with a leader in the Senate named Dean Skelos, about arranging for a no-show job for his son with a firm that had business with the state, nowhere was it mentioned that the son was adopted, even though it was well known among insiders in Albany--and we in adoption reform. I emailed the reporter doing the story--for certainly, in this case, the son's adoption was part of the story. I got an email back from someone else at the Times telling me I had to be wrong. I wrote back suggesting the Times reporter or someone (like a fact-checker?) check with Skelos himself; whoever I was emailing demurred. End of story. 

Not quite. When the Skelos defense team presented their case...the son's being adopted was part of his defense! Go figure. (FYI, The court threw that out.) The Times used to have a whole bureau of three guys--always guys when I was there--in Albany during the legislative session, but apparently now they have only people who are far from knowledgeable. Or maybe any mention of adoption in personal stories is generally verboten. 

All of this comes to mind when I read about Walters, one story leading to another. Barbara Walters deserves every accolade for the doors she pushed open for women in the media. If there were few women covering hard news, as I did, on newspapers upstate in the Sixties, there were even fewer taken seriously on television. And Walters led the way then for those who would follow and was a mentor to many. 

But she also was a force in slowing the unsealing of birth records for adoptees, and that brings to mind the wisdom of Thomas Kuhn, the American philosopher who concluded decades ago that a scientific paradigm topples only when the last of its powerful adherents dies. The same is true with sociological paradigms such as adoption, universally a sacred cow in the media, always to be admired, never discouraged or attacked. 

Yet we have come a long way in the movement to unseal adoption records and in doing so change some people's perceptions. Walters was not a leader in the forces that still keep so many records unjustly sealed from their rightful owners, but she was a "powerful adherent" of that philosophy nonetheless, and her passing signifies the continual march to the end of its sway. To quote Martin Luther King: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. --lorraine



May the Richest Parents Win--The DeBoer Case

Barbara Walters, Others Tell Personal Adoption Stories


  1. Thank you, Lorraine, for another insightful piece. This blog has helped me understand so much about my experience over the years. I’m grateful for all you have done for adoptees & first mothers over the decades.

  2. Thanks, Lorraine,
    As soon as I read that Barbara Walter had died, I wondered if Jacqueline was in her will and if Jacqueline would do a "Mommy Dearest" tell all. Why? Because of media reports that Jacqueline had a difficult growing-up and because of Barbara's career and the ego that helped it, would have made for a difficult relationship. We're seen so many of these struggles between celebrity adoptive parents and their children.

    Regarding the media neglecting to mention Jacqueline was adopted, in his memoir Michael Reagan, the adopted son of Ronald Reason and Jane Wyman, complained that the White House press office always referred to him as the adopted son. Pres. Reagan agreed to stop the practice. I suspect the adoption industry and advocates also got to the media and convinced the media to change the practice.

    1. Jane,
      While the statistics show that adoptees have more issues and problems than the non-adopted population, there is so much research today about what is inheritable, i.e. genetically based, that I no longer automatically push problems to "adopted." While her daughter did have addiction issues and attendant problems, she did for a while try to run a treatment center in Maine and it operated for several years. I haven't really been able to find out anything about how Jacqueline is doing today, and we hope she is doing fine, and wants to stay out of the limelight.

      As for the other issue--using "adopted" in stories about adopted people, it's a tough problem I think for the press, because, as you noted about Michael Reagan, he didn't want always to be singled out as "adopted." Who would be? However, obituaries are records of the person's life and it seems that they ought to veer to reality rather than obfuscation. I didn't have anything to do with putting my daughter's obituary in her local newspaper, but both my husband and I were included, and that was of some comfort to me. I credit her adoptive parents for this courtesy.

      I've talked to some adoptees about this, and they come down on both sides of the issue. As the movement to allow adoptees their original birth certificates continues, as more adoptions are open, maybe this will resolve itself. But I doubt it.

    2. Lorraine, once again you have authored a very thought provoking piece. I am a first mother and am on the band wagon for adoption reform and OBCs. The secrecy is lunacy. I believe more reform will occur when the older WASP policy makers have retired or died. It is a shame that Barbara Walters wasn’t more sensitive and progressive about the trauma mothers and babies experience/d.

      As a side note regarding Jackie, a story about her selling Barbara’s Florida condo in 2018 came across my homepage today. Anyone that is interested can likely find the article with Google.

      I can’t thank you enough for your efforts on adoption reform. GAAR (the Georgia Alliance for Adoptee Rights) is making headway for the 2023 General Assembly. The Bill is in the early stages, and I will keep you posted.

    3. Thank you, Rosemary! Let me know when it would be beneficial for me to get involved with GA. Hearing from relinquishing mothers is what legislators need to get past their reluctance. From my experience, most legislators today don't deny the rights of the adopted to have their information, but then...try to balance that right with the murky "right" of the mother to stay in the closet.

    4. I'm replying late... to Lorraine's reply to Jane...

      As a reunited adoptee, I, too, see the research on inherited, genetic based traits. We inherit our personalities as well as medical issues, talents, intelligence... I also know that the household environment is important. How we are raised - with love or tenderness or bickering or withholding our personal information or acceptance of difference (as H. David Kirk pointed out in his works) or not accepting that raising an adoptee is very different from raising a child who is your own flesh and blood - it's all important. Adoptees can be made to feel part of the family or shunned because we are adopted.

      This isn't a total "nature vs nurture" competition, either. As you know, adoption is much more complicated.

      Adoptees, like mothers, get blasted from the general public, too. We have to contend with micro-aggressions, and flat-out hostility from people who don't understand adoption psychology, or our activism.

      I get blasted all the time! I went to a work shop two months ago about racism, and we were asked to introduce ourselves to the person sitting next to us and to say something about ourselves. I said I was adopted and the man next to me said, "Congratulations!" He shook my hand as he told me that he adopted his son. I drew in a deep breath and carefully let the air out so I wouldn't scream at him, but really, I was in deep anger and grief. Congratulate me? He obvioulsy didn't want to hear that my mother died when I was 3 months old and my father was talked into giving me up for a private and closed adoption and that I lost a childhood with my 4 older siblings. That man only wanted to hear that I had a good life being adopted.

      Adopted people have to deal with this all the time. So, this is more than "nature vs nurture" --- and to be adopted by someone rich and famous like Barbara Walters makes it all the more problematic.

      Several years ao, I had a run-in with a rich and powerful woman here in Buffalo. She and her husband own a TV company here. I won't go into specifics, but when a friend of mine who works at the station suggested to the owners that I get on an interview show, I was immediately black-listed. Why? Because I am well known locally as the adoptee who writes about adoptees' civil rights. The owners of the TV station didn't want me to conflict with their adoption - possession - of someone else's child. (Yes, there was a previous interaction with the wife as she is a writer, too, who blasted me at my first local author gig several years back because I wrote my memoir. She told me that I "sound angry" - for pointing out the inequalities of adoption?).

      Anyway, this is a good, eye-opening piece about Barbara Walters and your experiences with her and her adopted daughter.

      Thank you, Lorraine!

  3. I have been thinking about Jacqueline, too. As an adoptee, I always noticed when "adopted" preceded a child's name. I especially recall when the Son of Sam was arrested in NYC. The words "adopted son of..." were upfront and center. Inevitably, when it is an adoptee gone wrong in some way, "adopted" is in the headline. Thanks for an excellent article. Walters' lustre is greatly diminished for me, due to this one issue. And I too was "chosen" due to coloring which matched my adoptive parents. And my birth mother lied about my father's Spanish/Italian/Catholic background -- damning to people who were shopping for WASPs!

    1. I think that the "adoptee" preceding the word when adoptees go bad is diminishing, as I noted about Dean Skelos and his son, Adam, above. Only when the Skelos defense team wanted to use that Adam, who participated in the no-show job by not showing up--it may have been real job if he had--was adopted did that appear in the New York Times. Adoption is something that Americans seem to want to ignore--until they can't. This does no good for the adoptee, or for the movement to unseal records. However, it's clear that "adopted" does not, nor should not, need to be used with every mention of the individual as that can only make them feel, I presume, ever more alienated.

  4. I disagree. I watched several of the specials and read a number of articles about the late Barbara Walters, and every one of them mentioned that her daughter Jacqueline was adopted. As a matter of fact, I thought that the media went too far with that point. One show aired an excerpt from an interview Jackie did with newswoman Cynthia McFadden. The entire segment was Ms. McFadden asking Jackie her feelings about being adopted. When McFadden asked Jacqueline who she considered her mother, Jackie immediately and emphatically answered, "Barbara" (which I'm sure was considered the 'correct' answer).

    On ABC's "Our Barbara" special, one of her executive producers (I think he worked on "The View") made several mentions of the fact that Jackie and Barbara were soooo different. I kept thinking to myself, "No surprise there. They aren't related."

    1. It seems as if the media was all over the place with Walter's daughter's adoption. Mentioning them in specials back then, but not mentioning any obituary that the daughter she "raised" was adopted.

  5. As I recall, Cynthia McFadden was adopted and claimed to have no interest in searching for her birth parents. I have to think that for a celebrity adoptee to express any interest in the birth parents can be a big "no, no." The ones who search and reunite always start off by insisting their adoptive parents are their REAL parents. When adopted singer Faith Hill told Walters in an interview that she needed to search, Walters gave her a puzzled look and asked why was that as though searching was a most unusual act.

  6. Excellent post, Lorraine. I didn't know about your personal experience on a talk show with Barbara, thank you for sharing that. So nice to read your words a bit more frequently of late - perhaps Jane will follow suit :)

    It's funny how in the wake of Barbara Walters' passing, I too found most of my reading to be focused on her daughter. Jacqueline Danforth ("Jackie") and Barbara Walters were so, so different that even from the little Jackie has said in public, I could sense that growing up with Barbara Walters as a mother was very hard on her. Jackie also seems to be one to shun the limelight, unlike her public figure mother. I hope she has found some peace and happiness, wherever she is.

    Our son has to deal with parents who are very different from him too. While we try to "get" him, it is not the same as being raised by parents who would understand him naturally, who wouldn't have to work at it. Meeting his sister who has practically the same personality as him has helped some, but this year his goal is to meet his mother - I hope that further enriches his sense of identity.

  7. Thank you for all you've done and all your hard work over the years to lead to open records and adoption reform I didn't know you were on the show with Barbara Walters I thought "the view " was okay while she was there and if I was unemployed or on furlough I would sometimes watch-interesting discussions- but now when I turn it on occasionally it just makes me angry more often than not and I turn it off- too weird and political. As a reunited firstmother, I have benefitted from being able to find my son and I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that you were(are) a pivotal force in the adoption reform movement.

    1. Thank you. I knew early on that I had a job to do in adoption reform. Fortunately, my mother understood immediately (she did not know about the baby for several years after she was born) and when I told her it was because I was also telling her I was going public for the purpose of changing the laws. She never wavered. But then--she was my mother! Thank you, Mom.



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