It’s been years since a central Indiana couple adopted a girl from Ukraine, became convinced that she was an adult impersonating a child, and abandoned her, setting off an international media frenzy and a legal showdown with authorities who accused them of parental neglect.
But even after the recent release of a slickly produced docuseries broke new ground on the saga, the mystery surrounding Natalia Grace’s virtually unprecedented adoption case seems to remain unsolved: exactly how old was she when Michael and Kristine Barnett left her? And was it unreasonable that they did so?
The dispute at the center of ID’s three-episode The Curious Case of Natalia Grace – which aired from 29 to 31 May and is streaming on Max and Discovery+ – began brewing all the way back in 2010. That was when the Barnetts took on the responsibility of parenting Natalia believing she had been put up for adoption as a six-year-old who was originally from Ukraine with a rare bone growth disorder causing dwarfism.
Records suggest the Barnetts – who also had three sons – soon came to doubt the accuracy of Natalia’s listed age. In the new docuseries, Michael Barnett recounts how Kristine – during a trip to Disney World – let out a blood-curdling scream when she noticed “full pubic hair” while bathing their new daughter, who was still supposed to be about five years away from the typical age of puberty for girls.
Natalia was also noticeably taller, had a more developed physique and used a more extensive vocabulary than a playmate of a similar age who had the same disorder that she had, according to the docuseries.
The Barnetts recalled seeing Natalia menstruate, which in many cases doesn’t happen before the age of 12. And they noticed how she spoke English without an accent and couldn’t understand Ukrainian even though she supposedly wasn’t removed from Ukraine until she was five.
In the docuseries, Michael Barnett also asserts that Natalia threatened to stab her new family and even tried to poison Kristine. Ultimately, as Michael puts it in the show, he, his wife and their sons came to believe: “We are living with a con artist sociopath.
“We don’t know who she is. We don’t know where she’s really from. Who the fuck is this person?”
The Barnetts eventually brought Natalia to a doctor, who told the couple that she was actually an adult. Then, in 2012, they successfully petitioned an Indiana court to legally change her age from eight to 22 years old, despite a skeletal survey done by a local children’s hospital which concluded that she was about 11.
With the ruling drastically adjusting Natalia’s age in hand, the Barnetts rented an apartment for her in Lafayette, Indiana – about 65 miles (105km) north-east of Indianapolis – and left her there to live alone, according to court documents. The Barnetts, meanwhile, moved with the rest of their children to Canada before divorcing, court records and media reports said.
Authorities soon began investigating Natalia’s case. In 2019, after about five years, prosecutors charged the Barnetts with neglect of a dependent.
The decision to prosecute the Barnetts prompted sensational news coverage from across the world, with some portraying the couple as overly selfish for discarding a possibly disturbed child and others suggesting they were duped by an adult impersonating a minor.
Appearing alongside a family who cared for her after the Barnetts left the US, Natalia went on Dr Phil’s talkshow and rejected the idea that she scammed anyone. She accused the Barnetts of deserting her when she was eight, instructing her to tell people that she was older than she was, and lying about her conduct.
The couple who took Natalia in after she was left in the Lafayette apartment, Anton and Cynthia Mans, stand up for her on the docuseries, saying she was a “genuine, loving” person and not at all the “adult sociopath masquerading as a child” that the Barnetts insist she was.
“The things that Michael says I have done [are] a lie,” Natalia herself says on the program. She adds that the Barnetts have been “trying to make it seem like I was just this big crazy person.” But, she counters, “That’s not true.”
Michael Barnett won an acquittal after facing a criminal trial in October. The case against Kristine – whom the docuseries accuses of abusing Natalia – was dismissed in March, just a few weeks before her trial was scheduled to start.
The docuseries notably includes interviews with neighbors who had unflattering things to say about Natalia. One of them, Toby Miles, describes how Natalia once casually discussed standing over the Barnetts with a knife as well as trying to poison them. Miles alleges being told by Natalia that, as a consequence, the Barnetts hid all the knives in the home away from her and also forced her to live in the garage for a time.
Another neighbor, Sue McCallum, described hearing a similar story, saying: “‘Oh, gee, I pulled a knife on my parents, big deal’ – that’s the attitude you got from her.”
Miles’s wife, Melanie, told the docuseries that Natalia’s off-putting behavior made her have sympathy for the Barnetts.
“It was hard for us to understand how she was just left in that apartment by herself,” Melanie Miles says on the series. “But then I also think if I had somebody in my home that I thought was a threat to my other kids, you know, what would I do?”
During a recent Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, the legal analyst Beth Karas – who provides commentary on the docuseries – alluded to how prosecutors now say they have a birth certificate, medical records, adoption documents and even a statement from Natalia’s biological mother which establishes that her listed birthdate of 4 September 2003 is accurate.
But prosecutors have also said they were barred from using all of the evidence they uncovered because more than five years had passed between the alleged crimes and the charges being filed.
Karas nonetheless said “the ultimate question” that remained is whether Natalia was a child when the Barnetts left her. She elaborated in an interview with the UK publication the Mirror, saying there were “some tricks” before the Barnetts took in Natalia but that she was also not as old as she was said to be in the court ruling which her adopted parents won.
Pointing to how the show establishes that Natalia’s appearance has “clearly matured” over the years, Karas added: “I think she’s probably – more likely than not – younger.”
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