The sequence of events, for a disabled Ukrainian six-year-old reared in an orphanage, could have been mistaken for a fairytale replete with inspirational Americana. The Barnett family of five from Indiana had just grown by one, welcoming into their home Natalia Grace, a young girl with a rare form of dwarfism who’d briefly been adopted by another American couple after leaving her native Ukraine. When that arrangement didn’t work out, the Barnetts stepped in, flying to meet Natalia at a Florida adoption agency before whisking their new daughter off to Disney World.
The photos from that trip to visit Mickey Mouse and friends, taken in the spring of 2010, show a smiling Kristine and Michael Barnett alongside their three sons and Natalia, the tiny Ukrainian beaming and seemingly tossing up her hands in delight.
Within days, however, that Rockwell-esque picture of the quintessential American family — and one welcoming a child in need into their midst, at that — began falling apart. What started as a question of Natalia’s true age quickly spiraled into a vortex of allegations, the Barnetts claiming their adopted daughter was really a murderous adult as Indiana social services looked into possible abuse and neglect on the parents’ part.
Thirteen years after what had seemed a fortuitous and idyllic adoption, Michael Barnett now appears in a new documentary, his eyes and veins bulging as he screams at the camera and slams his fists into the floor. His marriage is over, his children partially estranged. He faced, fought and beat charges related to his treatment of Natalia; his ex-wife saw similar charges dropped just this spring.
Natalia — her age and backstory still raising questions — lives with another family in another town in Indiana.
Investigation Discovery’s docuseries The Curious Case of Natalia Grace, which debuted this week and is streaming on Discovery+, attempts to delve into the too-wild-to-believe tale, complete with a cascade of eye-opening curveballs. The series concludes with no real answers — and questions about just who might be the real victims in the entire convoluted saga.
“The closer you look into this case and dig, the harder it is to know where the truth lies,” former prosecutor and legal analyst Beth Karas says in the series. “Maybe there’s more than one villain in this story.”
It all began well over a decade ago, when the Barnetts, who’d married and welcomed three sons after both attended Purdue University in Indiana, decided that their family was financially and emotionally ready to adopt a child with special needs. At least one foreign adoption attempt fell through for them before they heard about Natalia, who was born with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita and who was six years old, they were told.
According to the documentary, Natalia had been adopted previously by a family in New England who appear to have attempted to give her away. The ID series interviews two different couples, also little people, who claim they’d been approached and had discussions with her former adoptive family.
One was put off by that family’s financial claims and suspicious behavior; the other, a couple based in Texas, actually flew to meet Natalia and her caretakers at a lake house in New Hampshire, they explain in the documentary.
“I can feel evil when I come into a room,” says Dwane Faris, who’d hoped to adopt Natalia with his wife, Robin. “I couldn't really put my finger on whether it was the situation that was evil or Natalia, there was something wrong with her ... and I think that's the first time I've ever completely trusted that intuition.
“Right then is when I made the decision that this was not going to happen — as hard as it was to make that decision,” he says in the docuseries.
So entered the Barnetts, who in 2010 were at “the pinnacle of life,” Michael Barnett says in the new docuseries, boasting of the family’s “thirteen TVs, we’ve got 14 couches, there was hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank account,” he says in 2019 footage.
The oldest of their three sons, Jacob, was an academic prodigy diagnosed with Asperger’s; Michael’s wife, Kristine, would publish a book about raising him in 2013. By then, however, the family’s idyllic setup had disintegrated.
Things went south quickly after the Barnetts picked up Natalia at the Florida adoption center.
“The fun times I can remember with Natalia are pretty much from that first week where we were in Florida,” Jacob Barnett, now an adult, says in the docuseries, speaking from his room in his father’s Indiana basement. “We went with Natalia to Disney World. We were all excited to have her in the family. Natalia seemed happy to join our family.”
When Kristine attempted to bathe their new daughter, however, she was shocked to discover pubic hair; it wasn’t long before the adoptive mother discovered that Natalia had been hiding her menstrual cycle, she claimed.
Incredibly, the Barnetts discovered that another girl with the same rare form of dwarfism was also living in Indiana, and the parents arranged a visit so the two children could meet, become friends and support each other. Michael Barnett claims he was immediately taken aback by how much older Natalia seemed than the other girl — insisting his adopted daughter recognised it, too, and quickly tried to make herself seem younger.
Elva Reyes, the mother of Natalia’s one-time playmate, backs up the account in the docuseries; she’d been disappointed by the encounter and never arranged another meeting with the Barnetts.
She’d been hoping, she says, that her daughter could form a “friendship ... where they can grow up ... [and not] feel like she’s the only one in the world.”
Instead, she immediately thought “Natalia looks physically really well-developed ... my first impression, like, your face doesn’t look like a little kid. I can’t really say an adult, but at least a teenager.
“She was very vocal, talking, like she can carry a conversation very well ... very smart kid for a six-year-old.”
Now 14 and looking at photos of Natalia at the time, her daughter, Therese, says in the film: “Definitely, I don’t think she looks the same age as me. I definitely had that baby look to my face.”
Therese adds: “I think she definitely looks like she’s at least 18, 20-ish.”
The question of the Natalia’s age, however, paled in comparison to everything else the Barnetts claim was going on inside their home. According to them, Natalia was threatening them with knives; defecating, urinating on and terrorising their youngest son; and making attempts on their lives, such as allegedly trying to poison Kristine’s coffee and to drag her into an electric fence. The Barnetts say professionals told them Natalia was a sociopath and that their family was in danger.
The fence incident at a creamery — downplayed by witnesses in the docuseries — sparked a 911 call, and Natalia temporarily ended up in a mental hospital. Employees speak off the record in The Curious Case of Natalia Grace, describing her as “mature,” acting and speaking in a sexually aggressive manner. Michael claims his adoptive daughter was sent home for propositioning male patients, but the hospital — unsurprisingly, given patient confidentiality — declined to comment for the series.
The Barnetts’ admitted treatment of Natalia, however, also raises eyebrows. Michael describes how Kristine forced her adoptive daughter to stand at the wall for hours, soiling herself; they made Natalia sleep outside on the deck as punishment, too, prompting a neighbor to call social services.
According to Michael in the series, a responding detective (who has since passed away) recommended that they have their daughter re-aged, a process the Barnetts professed to know nothing about. In 2012, however, an Indiana judged agreed to alter her birth date from 2003 to 1989, raising her age to 22, seemingly based on evidence including the fact that she hadn’t grown in two years.
As a legal adult, Natalia was no longer entitled to the Barnetts’ financial support.
They set her up with federal benefits and rented her an apartment in nearby Westfield, Kristine dropping groceries on the curb before watching from the car as a neighbor helped Natalia bring them into the home, that friendly neighbor, Sue McCallum, says in the series.
It wasn’t long, however, before even that neighbor — along with the wider community — began having concerns about Natalia’s behavior. The new resident was constantly haranguing neighbors, hanging around and making life generally unpleasant; the apartment complex received complaints, according to the documentary, and Natalia even casually mentioned that she’d tried to kill her family, interviewees allege.
Natalia even called 911 on herself, claiming she’d been stalking a neighbor and was afraid of what she might do; the docuseries dramatically reproduces the call.
Eventually, the Barnetts removed Natalia from the apartment, finding her a new place in Lafayette, a less salubrious town about an hour away that Michael alleges Kristine picked because it was full of “white trash,” ensuring no one would bat an eyelid at Natalia’s bizarre situation.
The Barnetts moved to Canada, where Jacob was pursuing advanced studies — but the alleged assumption about Lafayette was wrong.
While Natalia had legally been determined to be an adult, meaning her adoptive parents no longer could be charged with neglect of a child, prosecutors in Tippecanoe County who’d become aware of Natalia’s plight could charge Kristine and Michael with neglect of a dependent based on her dwarfism.
They did, piling on as the all-American facade disintegrated.
The Barnetts filed for divorce in 2013, and Michael takes great pains in the docuseries to blame Kristine for, basically, everything. He says she was abusive, shares social media interactions that hint at her deception and alleges she was using sex as manipulation.
He physically mimes beatings he insists that Kristine imparted; his son Jacob, caught unawares on a microphone, also alludes to abuse and cover up.
Kristine, for her part, refuses to talk to the filmmakers, snorting only that their network is “whack.”
The Independent was unable to reach either parent.
The docuseries chronicles Michael’s legal battle as he stood trial on neglect charges in October; Natalia herself testified, detailing how a Lafayette family had taken her in and taught her life skills she’d never learned under the Barnetts, such as how to read, write and wash her hair.
Her adoptive father was found not guilty of three neglect charges and conspiracy to commit neglect of a dependent.
Charges against Kristine were dropped in March — but Tippecanoe authorities have since released considerable evidence to the public, including Natalia’s birth certificate, medical records and adoption documents.
“The Indiana State Police sent two detectives, and we sent one of our deputy prosecutors to Ukraine in 2019,” Tippecanoe County Prosecutor Patrick Harrington told News 18. “This is before the war over there. They were actually able to find and meet Natalia’s birth mother. DNA samples were taken from her, brought back to the police lab which showed she was the natural mother of Natalia,” Harrington said.
“The purpose of this isn’t to go so much into what happened and didn’t happen in court. The purpose of this is to say here’s what we’ve had from the start of the investigation all the way. Not one person, one doctor, not a dentist, not a government official contradicts her birth date at all,” he said.
In The Curious Case of Natalia Grace, filmmakers speak via video call with Natalia’s mother in Ukraine, who details how doctors advised her to give up the disabled newborn because she’d never be able to properly provide for her. She laments the decision before rolling blackouts in the war-torn nation cut the feed.
Natalia is not interviewed in the new docuseries, but footage of her conversations with the prosecutorial team are included in which, after all the confusion, even she seems to find it hard to nail down her age.
However, she is set to tell her own side of the story in a two-hour ID documentary airing later this summer, The Curious Case of Natalia Grace: Natalia Speaks.
In an extended preview for the Natalia Speaks documentary, which was obtained by Entertainment Tonight on Thursday, Natalia says: “This is my side of the story, and I’m going to say what happened because I never got a chance to say what happened.
“The things that Kristine and Michael have said that I have done is a lie. I have never done anything that Kristine and Michael have said that I have done.”
We have heard from Natalia before, though. In 2019, she gave an interview to Doctor Phil denying she was an adult scam artist masquerading as a child, speaking to the television personality alongside Antwon and Cynthia Mans, the Lafayette couple who took her in. Mans denied that, even in 2019, Natalia had ever had a period.
Natalia, for her part, denied every allegation of murderous intentions and behaviour leveled by the Barnetts, even descending into tears as she asserted: “No.”
Instead, she claimed, the family that she thought would provide her forever home turned on her — brutally.
Kristine, she told Dr Phil, “said that I hid knives on top of the fridge, under the fridge, in the cabinets, even on her office desk” ... though she was unable to reach the top of the refrigerator “even with a chair.”
“I thought I had found the right family after bouncing around,” she told the TV psychologist, adding; “I thought I had found the right family for me.”
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