Natalia Grace is a Ukrainian orphan who was adopted by Kristine and Michael Barnett in 2010. They began to believe that she was actually an adult posing as a child and trying to kill them, but Natalia says she was only 6 years old when they adopted her.
Our story starts off with a question. Did a girl's parents force their adopted daughter to say she was an adult and then abandon her? Or was she actually an adult who was pretending to be a child and trying to kill them? This has been compared to the 2009 horror movie called Orphan. If you're like me and haven't seen the movie, it's about a couple who adopted a child from Russia with a condition that stunted her physical growth. The child turned out to be a woman posing as a child and she murders several people including her adoptive father, but unlike the movie, this is a very real story.
This is the story of Natalia Grace. She went on the Dr. Phil show and said, “I actually thought I'd found the right family after bouncing around a lot of families. I thought I'd found the right family for me.” Natalia was adopted by Kristine and Michael Barnett in 2010 and they already had 3 sons.
The Barnetts were experienced foster parents who ran a children's daycare from their home. Kristine said, “I always wanted to have a larger family and I had very severe complications in my pregnancies and was unable to have more children. I also at that time had a very privileged life. I felt that if I had the ability to help another person in the world then I wanted to do it.”
Natalia says she was told that she had been with 30 different families, but she doesn't remember it being that many. One family did return her to US social services when she injured another child. She explained that, “One of the boys, me and him were really close so we wrestled almost, but I landed on his arm wrong so the mom thought I was trying to break his arm.”
The Barnetts were only given 24-hours to complete an emergency adoption, so they raced to the adoption center in Florida to sign the paperwork and pick up their little girl. All they were told was that Natalia had been in the US for two years, she had dwarfism, a Ukrainian birth certificate and her DOB was September 4th, 2003 so she was 6-years-old. She needed a home immediately because her previous adoptive parents were suddenly giving her up for undisclosed reasons.
Michael said that the first red flag was actually on the day that they went to pick Natalia up for the first time. He says, “Day 1 we get Natalia, we're in the adoption agency waiting to meet her for the first time. Her former family is in another room surrendering her. The next thing you know, the door opens, the girl comes running in, Mommy! Daddy! Mommy! Daddy! Smiles all over her face.” Michael pauses for a moment and says, “Wait a second. What child is being given up by her parents and is instantly calling somebody else Mommy, Daddy and is happy about this?”
Right away, the family noticed that Natalia was extremely nervous, so they knew she would need extra support and care. As they walked to the parking lot, they realized that she couldn't walk and there wasn't anything about that in the paperwork. Natalia has a rare form of dwarfism called diastrophic dysplasia which affects cartilage and bone development and she also has scoliosis which causes a sideways curve in the spine or back bone. Over the next few days, they got to know their daughter by taking her out for ice cream, having playful pillow fights with their three boys and they took her to Disney World.
The Barnetts weren't prepared for having to carry their daughter everywhere and it was pretty exhausting. When they took her to the beach for the first time, the boys rushed into the water, but Natalia waited to be carried. Michael and Kristine were tired, so they asked her to wait a few minutes. All of a sudden, she got up and ran to the ocean on her own and they were stunned. She couldn't walk during their entire trip, but suddenly she could run?
The family had a Ukrainian friend and they asked her to speak in their native language for Natalia, but she couldn't understand it and she was not able to describe her homeland. Michael has pointed out that it's odd that Natalia was supposedly born in Ukraine, but she doesn't have a detectable accent, doesn't seem to recognize any Ukrainian words and she can't remember anything about her life there. Shortly after the adoption, Kristine and Michael became suspicious about her real age. They felt like she was way more mature than a 6-year-old and she talked like a teenager and didn't want to play with toys, she wanted to spend time with teenage girls and she was very well-spoken.
Kristine says that she was giving Natalia a bath one day and she noticed that she had full pubic hair and she was shocked because she's supposed to be 6. She also said she found clothing in Natalia's closet and in the trash that had remnants of a menstrual cycle. Kristine said, “Natalia was a woman. She had periods. She had adult teeth. She never grew a single inch, which would happen even with a child with dwarfism.”
Kristine said, “It's very hard to decipher how old she is because she has such a unique look. But at that time I started to believe she was probably a teenager. But I didn't have any regrets. This was what I wanted to do. I felt overwhelming love for her.”
It wasn't just Natalia's age that had the family concerned, there were other things going on as well. Once they questioned her about her age and identity, she began to act out. Kristine saw Natalia attack a baby boy on the baby monitor when she was out of the room. They attended therapy together, but Natalia said the bonding exercises were childish. Kristine told Daily MailTV that Natalia threatened to stab her family, would stand over them while they slept, tried to poison her coffee and even tried to push her onto an electric fence. Natalia denies all claims of trying to harm or kill the Barnetts or their children. She told Dr. Phil that the claims were all a big misunderstanding.
Kristine confronted Natalia after catching her pouring Pine-Sol into her coffee and she says that Natalia told her that she was trying to poison her. They felt that there was an extreme issue going on with their daughter's mental health, so they took her to a stress center to be evaluated. Michael said, “While at the stress center, she was documenting, she was telling the doctors, she was telling therapists, she was writing down on her notepad. Not only am I trying to kill Kristine, but I'm going to kill the brothers, too. Here's how I'm going to do it. Here's what I'm going to do with their bodies.” She would make statements and draw pictures saying she wanted to kill her family and roll them up in a blanket and put them in the backyard.
By 2011 she was smearing blood on walls and mirrors, making death threats, jumping out of moving vehicles and hearing voices. Kristine also says that Natalia was hiding knives all over the house including on top of the cabinets and fridge, but even with a chair, she wouldn't be able to reach, so that doesn't entirely make sense. She spent a year being treated for various psychiatric disorders, spending days to weeks at a time at the St. Vincent Indianapolis Stress Center.
Kristine says Natalia tried to drag her on to an electric fence during a 2012 birthday shindig. She was placed in long-term program at a state run psychiatric unit because she posed a risk to others. Kristine says that it was during treatment that Natalia admitted that she was older than she appeared. She did present paperwork to DailyMailTV that appears to confirm her version of events and shows that health care professionals did share the same concerns. One of Natalia's therapists says that in January of 2012, she confessed that she was 18.
At Larue Carter Hospital in Indianapolis, in June 2012, staff members said that she described how she tried to kill family members and had no remorse about it. She told them it was fun. It was in 2012 that the Barnetts decided to file a motion with the Marion County Superior Court in Florida to have the date on Natalia's birth certificate changed from 2003 to 1989 which would make her 22. Kristine says that they did bone tests to prove that Natalia was 14 or older at the time of the adoption. Once the bone density tests proved that she was 14 or older, Kristine switched her princess outfits and pink dresses for clothing that would be more appropriate for her age.
In 2010, Children's Hospital says Natalia was 8, not 6.
In 2012, the bone density test says she was 11, not 8
In 2012, the Barnett family doctor says her bones and teeth proves she is 14, not 8.
The Barnetts said that they fully believed that she wasn't a little girl, she was an adult with mental illness. Michael said, “Once her age was corrected, she was going to be admitted into an outpatient facility.” The Barnetts say they absolutely didn't abandon Natalia. Michael said, “After her age was corrected, and she was released by the hospital that she was an inpatient, which by the way, for nine weeks straight, she was under 24-hour observation and care, they all agreed she is an adult.”
The Barnetts had the court correct her age so she could receive the appropriate psychiatric treatment for an adult. At that point, she was considered an adult by the state of Indiana and was legally responsible for herself. Once she was released from secure psychiatric care in August of 2012 and placed under supervision of state healthcare provider, they got her a social security number, applied for benefits, food stamps, and an ID.
In 2013, when she was discharged from the psychiatric unit, Michael said that things became really tough when Natalia shut down on them and chose not to return to the Barnetts home after her hospital stay. She was sent to a halfway house for awhile until she asked them to come get her. Indiana State Police Detective Brandon Davenport testified that it was actually Kristine who told Michael not to pick up Natalia from the hospital and later changed her mind and told him to go pick her up. The Barnetts decided to rent her an apartment and furnished it. Natalia says that she was only 8 years old at this time when she was living alone and the Barnetts would stop by and leave canned food for her. She was enrolled in an adult school and she said that Kristine told her that she needed to tell everyone that she was 22 years old.
“We helped her set up into an apartment near the town we live in. We paid her first three months rent. We set her up with disability, social security, food stamps. I checked on her...a couple times a week to make sure everything was fine. She lived in that apartment a year on her own.”
Natalia lived on her own for a year, but she caused some problems at the property and was evicted. The Barnetts stepped in and rented her a new apartment so she wouldn't be homeless. Kristine said she would provide one more year of financial aid, which is exactly what she would do for all of her children. She co-signed the lease and paid for a year of rent, bought furniture for her and helped her with groceries. Kristine said, “I was optimistic, she had a concrete plan for her life. She had food stamps. She had social security income for the rest of her things. She had demonstrated she was able to live.” They were communicating with her daily to help her come up with a plan to enroll her in college, get her high school diploma and study cosmetology.
During one of Kristine's trips to Natalia's apartment, she found a little pink dress in her closet and a little pink bike was parked beside her house. Since she was an adult, they couldn't force her back into treatment. In July of 2013, about a month after she had settled into her new apartment, the Barnetts announced that they were moving to Canada. Their 14-year-old son Jake was diagnosed with autism at age 2 and he had his first academic paper published at age 12. At age 14, he was an astrophysics prodigy and he was given an opportunity to study at a prestigious physics institute. He was offered a position in their graduate program and he would get to spend time with Stephen Hawking. The family dropped everything to get their son to this university.
When they moved to Canada, Natalia had pretty much vanished and stopped returning their calls. They feared that she had stopped taking her medications and was posing as a child again, trying to get a new family, but they were so far away, they didn't know what they could really do at this point. They did receive a letter in the mail stating that Natalia had changed the beneficiary on her social security income and it was no longer Michael. The last time they spoke to Natalia she said she was cooking spaghetti for her new family.
Kristine and Michael got a divorce in 2014, but they were both taken to court for neglect for abandoning Natalia. A trial date was set for January 28th of 2020. Allegations stated that the two of them ditched their daughter and left the country. Michael Barnett said, “There was no running to Canada.” They feel that Natalia is a woman who scammed them.
A new couple, Antwon and Cynthia Mans unexpectedly applied to become Natalia's guardians after meeting her. They tried to prove that she was a minor to restore her original birth date, but the Barnetts filed an objection and claimed she was an adult. Michael Barnett showed up for the hearing with her primary physician and therapist. After testimony, the judge upheld the 2012 decision to change her birthday to September 1989. The judge said, “You are legally an adult. You have been legally an adult. You probably need to start living your life like one.”
During an interview with Dr. Phil, Natalia's new adoptive parents said that they had been together for almost seven years and she was a genuine and loving person. They said that she still didn't have her menstrual cycle and they wanted the Barnetts to be prosecuted and serve their time for what they did to her. Antwon and Cynthia say that Natalia still had baby teeth when they got her and they took her to Michigan for tests and they concluded that she was actually 14, not 22. There isn't sufficient evidence to overturn her age and bring her back to a child, but how was there sufficient evidence to change her age to an adult in the first place?
Kristine's trial date has not been set yet. A judge had dismissed most of the charges in August of 2020 because they just aren't applicable since another judge determined that Natalia was an adult and the statute of limitations were exceeded before the charges were filed. Multiple courts have ruled that they could not pursue any charges relating to Natalia's age because she was legally an adult. The state did appeal this and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Michael Barnett was charged with neglect of a dependent, neglect of a dependent resulting in bodily injury, neglect of a dependent resulting in serious bodily injury and conspiracy to commit neglect of a dependent. To explain the bodily injury charges, they're saying that Michael endangered Natalia by putting her in an apartment with two flights of stairs when she clearly had a disability. Natalia testified that she was afraid to crawl up the stairs and she didn't have any mobility devices to assist her. Natalia said her pain had increased while she was living on her own and it was alleged that if she had been given access to medical services or if she had surgeries on her hands and back, she may have avoided the increase in pain. She said she fell several times in the clawfoot tub and she had a difficult time using the appliances.
The affidavit shows that Natalia was the one that contacted the police in 2014 saying her adoptive parents moved to Canada and she was left alone. The document says that when an officer spoke to Michael, he admitted that he knew all along that she was a minor child and that they abandoned her. The document says that “Michael Barnett admitted Kristine Barnett told Natalia to tell others Natalia looks young, but was actually 22.”
Michael's attorney says his client did not say this and his statements were taken out of context.
A letter from the Barnetts' primary care physician Andrew McLaren dated March 2012 stated that Natalia's 2003 birth date was obviously inaccurate and it was his belief that she made a career out of pretending to be a young child and she had fooled him, her parents, and other physicians.
Detective Scott Clouse of the Westfield City Police Department told them via email that he transferred the case to the FBI and ICE because he suspected there was false age reporting prior to Natalia leaving Ukraine. Unfortunately, this detective did pass away and a colleague said the didn't think the FBI pursued the case.
The police department gives a very different version of events than what the Barnetts say. A September 11 affidavit of probable cause states that an expert at the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital named Dr. Riggs carried out bone density tests in June 2010 and concluded that she was about 8 years old. Another skeletal test was completed two years later at the same facility and showed that she was about 11.
Dr. Brad Tinkle reviewed 10 years of Natalia's medical records and testified that her form of dwarfism causes her skeleton to be malformed. She has limited functions and movement of her arms, elbows, legs, shoulders, feet, neck, and hands. She has a severely curved spine and a tilted pelvis, which combined with her permanently bent knees and contracted ankles, makes it difficult to walk. Her condition also makes it impossible to put her heel flat on the floor, so she walks on her tip toes. Her malformed bones also cause pain and arthritis. The reports say that she struggled to walk 10 feet without assistance. She was in physical therapy and the goal was to get her to be able to walk 120 feet.
Dr. Tinkle said Natalia had limited mobility and this would make it difficult for her to reach items on a shelf, use a top-loading washer or dryer, or use a stove with control knobs that are located on the back of the stovetop. She would have difficulties getting in and out of a claw-foot bath tub and she would not be able to use the freezer since it was located on the top half of the fridge. Natalia would likely have trouble with stairs and there were 27 of them going from the sidewalk to her second-floor apartment. The apartment's owner did eventually lower the door handle and lock so Natalia could reach, but there were no other accommodations for her height.
Dr. Joseph Bellflower, an orthopedic surgeon, testified that he operated on Natalia in 2010 to correct her club foot. He said, “At the time we saw her, she was using a wheelchair for most of her mobility. She couldn't walk very far at that point.” Dr. Bellflower is not sure if the surgery helped Natalia's condition. The Barnetts brought her back to his office for one post-operation visit where they removed the casts, but they did not do any of the typical follow up appointments.
Desirita Bussell was hired to take care of Natalia in 2012 when she was living alone and she testified that Natalia had been shown how to do laundry, cook, bathe, feed herself, and call for help during her 15 visits to the apartment.
The jury deliberated for a couple hours and found Michael Barnett not guilty on all charges. We are still waiting for Kristine's trial to take place.