Adoption Changed Judge Kathryn Olita’s Life, Now She is Helping It Change Other Lives, Too

November 22, 2019

Judge Kathryn Olita learned early on how adoption can change lives.

When she was just a few months old, her father, Lt. Kendall McKinnis, was killed while serving in the United States Air Force in Saudi Arabia. After this tragic loss, she and her mother, Anne, left Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma to move in with Anne’s parents in Kansas.

A trip to Clarksville, Tennessee, changed everything. There, Kathryn’s mom attended a wedding where she was seated next to a charming Clarksville native named William Wall. They hit it off and began dating long distance.

Things went well, and, before too long, the couple married. Judge Olita and her mother joined Wall in Tennessee, where in 1981 Wall formally adopted Kathryn in Montgomery County Chancery Court. The child who had lost her father now had a new father and a new, lifelong source of wisdom, support, and friendship.

“For him to have made that commitment to me makes me realize how fortunate I am, and I have a lot of gratitude for that,” Judge Olita said. “When I see parents stepping in to that role, the adopting parents, I think they are changing a child’s life.”

That 4-year-old girl in 1981 could not have known that one day she would get the opportunity to play an important role in the creation of new families, but that is just what happened. Each week, in her capacity as a judge on the 19th Judicial District Circuit Court, Judge Olita gets to experience the unique joy that comes with seeing children legally connected with their adopted parents.

While her Division V courtroom sees all kinds of domestic cases, adoptions are by far her favorite. She always starts her Friday dockets with them.

“It’s very heartwarming,” she said. “It’s a great way to start the day and get off on that happy note.”

These dockets in some ways resemble celebrations or holidays.

“The children will be out of school a lot of times, they’ll be dressed up,” Judge Olita said. “I’ve had families who have come before in matching t-shirts. Siblings will be there and grandparents. It’s such a wonderful, wonderful event, and I love that they get so excited about it and that I get to be a small part of that. We take pictures at the end usually. I like to make it special for them. It’s a big day.”

Judge Olita is quick to point out that these big days are actually the result of a lot of behind the scenes work by many different parties.

“We obviously put in time and work ahead of time,” she said. “What you see in the courtroom is the culmination of a lot of hard work on the part of the families and their lawyers and agencies that are trying to help place children and determine if a home is a good fit.”

The relationships that often lead to adoptions also take time to develop, and Judge Olita makes an effort to emphasize that in the courtroom as well.

“I tell a lot of them that I realize I’m making it legal but the relationships have existed between these parents and these children in most cases for years before I ever get to meet them,” she said.

While Judge Olita’s passion for adoption issues is lifelong, her love for the law was sparked while she was an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She was studying psychology and took a class on psychology and the law. The connection between the two fields fascinated her. As a junior she decided she wanted to pursue her interest in the latter by going to law school after she graduated.

Judge Olita settled on the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, where she received her juris doctor in 2003. While in Memphis, she also met her husband, Aaron, with whom she now shares two children, Charlie, 13, and Polly, 10.

After graduating, Judge Olita took a position in Memphis with the firm Rosenblum and Resiman, focusing primarily on civil litigation. A few years later, an opportunity arose in Clarksville, and she took it. There, in 2006, she joined the firm Batson Nolan PLC, continuing her civil litigation work. During this time, she also worked for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System, eventually becoming its board attorney in 2015.

When Judge Olita learned in 2018 that the State of Tennessee was creating a new judgeship in the 19th Judicial District, she was interested right away.

“I pretty much immediately reached out to the local judges to get their take on it,” she said.

Eventually she learned that the new Division V courtroom would be concerned mainly with domestic issues, since that is where the greatest need was in the district. That solidified her interest in the position. She applied in the summer of 2018 and was appointed to the position by then-Governor Bill Haslam in October of that year.

There are lots of stories that have touched Judge Olita since she joined the bench. One that really resonated with her was an adoption case involving a teacher who wanted to adopt a student she had been fostering.

“That was just really amazing because those two had connected in the school setting, but then outside of that she had taken all the steps necessary to complete what she needed to do in order to adopt him,” Judge Olita remembered. “He had been in the foster system pretty much his whole life. The relationship they had, and the connection they had with each other was just amazing.”

Judge Olita has also been moved by the increasing number of adult adoption cases she has seen, where a parent wants to adopt a person over the age of 18.These cases are a reminder to her “that people don’t stop being a parent when someone turns 18. It’s a lifelong relationship.”

Some stories are sweet, with a shadow of sorrow behind them. Judge Olita said she is definitely seeing more cases where grandparents seek to adopt their grandchildren because their own children are struggling with opioid use disorders.

“It’s obviously life-altering when a parent suffers from an opioid addiction, but it’s also very heartening and gives you hope when you see that there are adults who are willing to step up and establish a parent child-relationship that will last forever,” she said. “There’s a glimmer of hope when it works out in that way.”

Judge Olita’s adoption-related work and, more generally, her advocacy for children are not just confined to the courtroom.

She has made it a point to try to educate attorneys about the finer points of adoption law, recently co-leading a CLE on the topic in Clarksville with Judge Ross Hicks.

“There was a change to the adoption law in 2018, and some of those things are very technical,” she said. “There are a lot of technical requirements that must be met. So we took it as an opportunity to talk about some of those changes, some of the things we’re seeing in filings, just as an effort to make sure that when an adoption comes through that everything has been done correctly.”

One of her favorite extracurricular activities involves working with the school program Project Transformation. That program connects college-age interns with at-risk school-aged children in an effort to make sure those children continue to have contact with educational resources during the summer months. The interns partner with local churches to set up summer camps for these children.

“I volunteer with them in a lot of different capacities,” Judge Olita said. “My favorite one is where all you do is you just go and let them read to you. It’s just a small thing, but it’s so impactful for them.”

With National Adoption Day coming up, Judge Olita wants to make sure that people are aware of just how transformative the process of adoption can be, for both parents and children.

“The relationship between parents and children is a fundamental relationship for all people, and those who pursue adoption or agree to step up and adopt in bad circumstances are really serving possibly the highest purpose they could,” she said.

With her own personal history and her history in the courtroom, she knows this from experience.

“I just think about how much of what I’ve ever learned about life has come from my dad, and certainly my life would have been very different had he not been there in that role,” she said. “I don’t know that the little bitty kids understand obviously what is happening, and certainly I didn’t at 4 years old either, but down the road there’s an appreciation that you have that you had a parent who was willing to step up and be the one. He picked me and that’s pretty special.”

Judge Olita with her parents Dr. William and Anne Wall

Judge Olita's biological father Lt. Kendall McKinnis holding her when she was a baby