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Marc Chase is a veteran investigative reporter, columnist and editor of more than two decades. He currently leads The Times news staff as local news editor. He can be reached at 219-933-3327.

Voters decreed earlier this month that Julia Jent, of Portage, and Marissa McDermott, of Hammond, both will wear the black robes of the judiciary heading into the new year.

Their common threads don't end there.

Spun into the lives of both Region judges are separate narratives, from their European births to their adoptions by American families.

The details of their life tapestries are equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking.

As National Adoption Month draws to a close, their stories provide lessons of love and opportunity that can arise from parents taking children, of no blood relation, into their families.

But their two stories — so similar in their beginnings and ends, but quite different in the middle — also remind us of the unfortunate need for the human spirit to adjust to uncertainty, tragedy or evil, sometimes at a very young age.

I first learned of the two strikingly similar circumstances of Porter County Superior Court Judge Julia Jent and Lake County Circuit Court Judge-elect Marissa McDermott earlier this fall when The Times Editorial Board interviewed the women for election endorsements.

Each woman earned a Times endorsement, in part by expressing a deep desire for effectively and compassionately presiding over cases of people, many of whom enter those courtrooms on the worst days of their lives.

Jent and McDermott both have the deep respect and esteem of their peers in the Region legal community.

However, the experiences arising from their compelling adoption stories, often wrought with raw emotion, uniquely position both women to sit on the bench.

Consider their stories.

Traced in cardboard

The adoption memories of 4-year-old Marissa still live inside the 41-year-old woman and judge-elect she's become.

She remembers lying down in a Polish orphanage with her twin brother while a blonde-haired American woman traced the children's bodies on pieces of cardboard.

The woman — Long Island, New Yorker Lynn Kelly — was preparing to adopt the twins.

"I owned nothing at the time, not even the clothing I wore at the orphanage," McDermott explained recently from her Merrillville law office.

So when her adoptive parents journeyed from New York to pick up Marissa and her twin brother, Jim, they quickly traced their bodies in cardboard as a guide for purchasing clothing.

It was 1979, and the Polish orphanage Marissa and Jim had known since shortly after birth was about to become a thing of the past.

Lynn and her husband, Patrick Kelly, a New York police officer, weren't able to conceive children in a traditional sense.

Lynn's Polish heritage led her to the Warsaw orphanage where she found two towheaded toddlers to call her own.

It was a turn of events that would lead to a life of wonder and opportunity, not the least of which was Marissa's first Christmas spent with her new family.

"I went from an orphanage where we literally owned nothing to this living room full of toys," she said.

Christmas 1979 included a family tree adorned in lights and gifts "everywhere," McDermott said.

The smiles of joy captured in photos of that Christmas say it all. She particularly remembers a Sesame Street Ernie doll and toy crib as favorite treasures.

That holiday would lead to many more life gifts as Marissa grew up in the embrace of a loving family.

Lynn nurtured an artistic side in Marissa, buying the little girl a violin when she expressed an interest and paying for regular music lessons on the meager salary of a cop and stay-at-home mother.

Patrick, loving but tough, taught Marissa there was no "man's work" she couldn't do just as well.

"If he was swinging a hammer, so was I," she said. "If we were drywalling the house, I was part of it, too.

"He didn't treat me like a princess. He treated my brother and I exactly the same."

McDermott teared up as we spoke earlier this month, recalling her kindergarten self, dressed up in her "Sunday finest" to take the oath of an American citizen.

It was her first time in an American courtroom, but it wouldn't be her last.

Through it all, Marissa continued to thrive in her new life, along pathways that would lead to law school at the University of Notre Dame.

She met her future husband, now Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., while completing her law degree.

That marriage led her to Hammond, a law practice of her own and motherhood to step-children Lindsey, now 24, and Chase, 22, and children Tommy, 16, and Patrick, 10.

The law practice and life in a prominent Region political family would lead to McDermott's pursuit of the Lake County Circuit Court judge seat.

In May, she defeated the incumbent judge in the Democratic primary after earning the highest overall marks for judicial aptitude from her Lake County Bar Association peers.

Earlier this month, she won the general election. She's scheduled to begin presiding over circuit court cases in January.

McDermott hails adoption by loving parents as one of the keys to her life success.

So does her Porter County colleague, Judge Julia Jent, though without many of the happy accounts told between initial adoption and rise to the judiciary.

Nightmare before dreams

Nine-year-old Julia remembers her excitement in 1956 when she learned she was to be adopted — along with her 7-year-old sister, Edith — by an American family.

The girls were living in a post-World War II orphanage run by Carmelite nuns in Germany. America, at the time, was a place of aspirations and dreams.

It had all the earmarks of a storybook tale, the now 69-year-old judge recalled from her Portage chambers earlier this month.

"I was so very excited initially," Jent said. "We worshiped the Americans."

Julia and Edith moved to Texas as the adopted daughters of a U.S. Army captain, a veteran of World War II and Korea, and his wife.

But the realities of their lives in a new family didn't match the wondrous image of the American dream, Jent recalled.

The girls' new mother was frequently physically abusive, and their father "liked little girls," Jent said, noting that sexual abuse haunted their childhood.

Despite living through real-life childhood nightmares, "God had a plan," Jent said.

It began with an escape plan.

When she turned 18, Julia left her family to enlist in the U.S. Army, ultimately serving as a medic for about a year.

It's how she met the man who would become her husband, also an Army medic and Northwest Indiana native.

Julia moved to the Region in 1966. She became the mother of four children — three daughters and a son — and is now grandmother to 14 grandchildren. Two of her children also served in the military.

Jent's time in the Army afforded her the educational opportunities that ultimately would lead to a career in law and a 20-years-and-counting tenure as a Porter County Superior Court judge. She was re-elected to the post earlier this month.

Forging identities

Despite the differences in their circumstances, both Jent and McDermott credit adoption with forging the identities of who they are and shaping the judges they either are or hope to be.

Jent believes the abuse she experienced as a child molded her into a more compassionate judge, able to more fully relate to many of the people who come through her courtroom.

"I get it when kids don't want to tell" when they've been abused, Jent said.

"When you go through these things, you have a choice. You can either nosedive and lay blame, or you can do something with your life. I chose to do something."

Even with the loving upbringing Judge-elect McDermott experienced, she can relate to Jent's words.

Four years ago, burgeoning with curiosity about her roots, McDermott tracked down her birth mother in Poland.

A meaningful relationship has formed, including with three of her biological siblings.

However, some questions continue to haunt her.

Chief among those questions is why Marissa and her brother were left at a Polish orphanage to begin with.

"I don't think I'll ever fully know that answer," McDermott said.

"But my parents will always be my parents, regardless of anything that happened," McDermott added, referring to the Irish-Catholic New Yorkers who traced her body in cardboard in 1979 before adopting her.

Jent notes that though her experience was raw and difficult, she remains a staunch supporter of adoption and the love and joy it can bring into the lives of prospective parents and children.

"There are so many more safeguards and regulations these days — so much more oversight," she said.

As they prepare for new terms on Region judicial benches, both women believe adoption is a selfless choice, often made by birth mothers who desire better lives and opportunities for their children.

"It's all made me part of who I am," Jent said. "I believe God truly does have a plan."

Editorial Page Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or Follow him on Facebook at or Twitter @nwi_MarcChase. The opinions are the writer's.