It’s a story out of a horror film, literally. You may have already seen it, in fact. It’s called Orphan. A couple adopted a little girl, but over time, she started acting strangely, her behaviour became sinister, even. Eventually, they realised she wasn’t who they thought she was and she was trying to kill them. Except this time, the story is true and it doesn’t end there.
Kristine and Michael Barnett were a ‘Christian couple’ (to use the Daily Mail’s words) from Indiana. Kristine was a parenting author and motivational speaker, who was known for her expertise in raising children with special needs. Her son Jake had been diagnosed with autism at two. By 12, he published his first paper. The couple also had two other sons together.
In 2010, they adopted a six-year-old Ukrainian girl called Natalia Grace. She had a form of dwarfism, which meant she was three-foot tall and had issues walking. She had been in the United States for two years already when the Barnetts adopted her; her last adoptive family had apparently given her up for ‘undisclosed reasons’.
Then she started behaving strangely. In an interview with the Mail, Kristine Barnett said she began to terrorise the family. She told them she wanted to kill them. She would stand over them when they were sleeping. She started jumping out of moving cars and smearing blood on mirrors. It gets worse: Kristine found her putting bleach in her coffee and Natalia once dragged her towards an electric fence.
They said she had adult teeth.
Kristine became convinced that Natalia Grace wasn’t a disturbed child, or even a child at all; she claimed that she was really a sociopathic adult, aged 22 at the time, who was posing as a child.
For starters, the Barnetts said she didn’t play with toys or dolls and had a sophisticated vocabulary. Natalia also hadn’t grown at all, something a child with dwarfism would do. They said she had adult teeth.
More damningly, Kristine claimed to the Mail that when she bathed Natalia, Natalia had pubic hair. She also said she noticed that Natalia was having periods and hiding the evidence, her bloody clothing thrown away. Doctors said that Natalia had a psychological illness only adults were diagnosed with. The Barnetts also said that their family doctor had run bone density tests on her and found Natalia was a teenager, if not older.
In 2012, the family legally changed Natalia’s age to 22 on official documents, her year of birth changing from 2003 to 1989.
Then, in 2013, the family rented Natalia an apartment and moved to Canada without her. Not, as might be expected from their claims, to escape the threats of violence, but to put one of their sons in a special school. If you believe she’s a child, they abandoned a three-foot tall little girl whose dwarfism means she needs help walking; if she’s an adult, they helped her rent an apartment, which is what they claim and moved away. (As they deny providing financial help beyond paying her rent, though, it’s still unclear how she managed alone, either way.) The authorities landed on the former.
The story gets more complicated from here.
According to NBC News, Natalia told police in 2014 that she had been left by her family, living alone in a rented apartment. Police started looking for the Barnetts, who were later charged with two counts of felony neglect of a dependent. They were arrested, released on bail and appeared for a hearing in court in September this year.
For her part, Kristine has said she didn’t abandon anyone. In her interview, she claimed that once the family had moved to Canada, Natalia vanished. Later, Kristine found a pink bicycle by her Natalia's house and a little dress in her wardrobe; she became concerned that Natalia was repeating the process: duping another family into caring for a child that was really an adult.
According to the Lafayette Journal & Courier, there was another couple that wanted guardianship of Natalia. In order to become her legal guardians, though, they first had to reverse the motion that changed her birth certificate and made Natalia legally an adult. The lawyers who acted on behalf of Natalia and the couple also believed that Natalia was a minor, that there was no way she could be an adult. The Barnetts, however, filed an objection and the original ruling was upheld.
But though Kristine has been vocal about her conviction that Natalia was an adult running a scam, pointing to her own doctor reports that back her up, hospital records show other tests from 2010, which confirmed Natalia was a child, after all.
More complicated still are the reports that Michael Barnett has changed the story once again. According to police, Michael (who divorced Kristine in 2014) told them that they had known Natalia was a minor all along, but that Kristine had told her to lie about her age and say she was really 22. The former couple’s case will go to trial in January 2020.
Whatever the truth behind this case is, it’s not even the first of its kind. Ukrainian man Artur Samarin came to the U.S. when he was 18. He then took five years off his life, changed his name and posed as a high school student. He was arrested in 2016. He served 14 months in prison, before being deported.
Is Natalia Grace’s story also a case of fraud, a sociopathic adult mimicking a child, or parental abandonment on the part of the Barnetts? This bizarre story is still unfolding.