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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Elizabeth Gregory

Natalia Grace: a doc about an adopted child accused of being an adult con-artist by her own parents? What?

So bizarre is the story of Natalia Grace, that if a writer pitched it in a writer’s room it would get thrown out for being too outlandish.

The story follows an Indiana family who adopted a six-year old Ukrainian girl with dwarfism called Natalia Grace in 2010. But very quickly they began to believe that she was in fact an adult.

It gets even stranger. Claims were made that over the two years she lived with them, Natalia threatened to kill her adopted siblings, stood at the bottom of her parents’ bed with a knife, and even tried to poison her new mother. In the end the parents changed her legal age from six to 22 years old, and abandon their adopted daughter – which led to criminal charges being brought against both parents.

Here are some of the key points of the astounding story which has become a slick three-part documentary by ID, which is now streaming on Max and Discovery+.

The Barnetts before they adopted Natalia

According to the docuseries, all was going well for Barnetts before they adopted Natalia. Kristine and Michael had met at Purdue University in Indiana, and had three sons. Michael, in footage from 2019, said they had “thirteen TVs, we’ve got 14 couches, there was hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank account.”

The family decided they’d like to take on the extra responsibility of adopting a disabled daughter, and so started the search.

Who was Natalia Grace?

Natalia Grace (Investigation Discovery)

Natalia was reportedly a six-year-old girl with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita – a rare both growth genetic disorder – who was originally from Ukraine. She was briefly adopted by another American family, but when things didn’t work out the Barnetts swooped in and took her in.

The documentary interviews two of the couples that were reportedly in the running to adopt Natalia. “I can feel evil when I come into a room,” said one of the potential parents, Dwane Faris. “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.”

The Barnetts felt differently. After picking up Natalia, the new family went straight to Disneyland Florida, which was reportedly, at first, an extremely happy week. But very quickly the Barnetts started to feel something wasn’t right: according to the docuseries, Kristine screamed when she was bathing her daughter and saw that she had “full pubic hair”.

Things get messy in the documentary

This was only the beginning of matters which raised the Barnetts’ suspicions that Natalia might not be who she was supposed to be. According to the docuseries, Natalia had also reportedly started to menstruate – which typically takes place between the ages of 10 and 16 years.

Then there were other aspects about Natalia which the Barnetts felt bolstered their case. Natalia had an American accent, even though she had only been in America for a short period of time, and they said she didn’t understand Ukrainian. She was also taller and seemed generally more developed than someone typically her age.

The drama doesn’t stop there

But that is really the beginning of what becomes a horrendous tragedy – both for the Barnetts, whose actions would lead to their prosecution, and whose marriage broke down as a result of the adoption, and for Natalia – who was allegedly treated so badly by the Barnetts that a neighbour called social services on the family.

The Barnetts made some serious accusations against Natalia. As Michael puts it in the show, they believed they were living with a “con artist sociopath... We don’t know who she is,” he said. “We don’t know where she’s really from. Who the f*** is this person?”

Over the two years that they lived together, the Barnetts said that Natalia became aggressive: Michael says that she tried to poison and kill his wife; that she threatened to stab his sons, and that once he woke up in the night and found Natalia standing at the end of the bed, wielding a knife. They also accused Natalia of defecating and urinating on their youngest son.

“We were all abused,” shouts Michael, crying, in the show. “I hate this.”

But the documentary also looks into the way that the Barnetts treated Natalia. Michael accused Kristine of beating Natalia. “My mum is definitely not 100 per cent innocent,” said one of the sons in the show. In the series Michael claims that Kristine punished Natalia by making her stand at a wall for hours or sleeping outside. A neighbour was so disturbed by these actions that they called social services on the Barnetts.

Kristine and Michael were charged with neglect

So sure were they of Natalia’s age, that the Barnetts – and it sounds too strange to be true – managed to go to an Indiana court and have her age changed from 6 years old to 22 years old. They had taken Natalia to a doctor who had agreed that she was an adult.

By changing her age it meant that the parents no longer had the same legal responsibilities over her. They rented her an apartment, organised for Natalia to receive federal benefits, and then took off – to Canada no less.

But although the Barnetts no longer had a legal responsibility over Natalia because of her age, they did, apparently, because of her dwarfism. Prosecutors in Tippecanoe County in Indiana somehow became aware of the situation, and both parents were charged with neglect. The charges didn’t however hold, and both parents have since been acquitted. The couple divorced in 2013, and in the docuseries Michael doesn’t hold back from blaming Kristine for a lot of the terrible drama.

Natalia denies everything and is now living with a new adopted family

Natalia Grace in 2019 (CBS)

In a 2019 interview with Dr. Phil, where Natalia is sat alongside her new adopted parents (Antwon and Cynthia Mans adopted Natalia in 2016), she started to cry when she spoke about her adopted family turning on her.

“I thought I had found the right family after bouncing around,” she said. “I thought I had found the right family for me.”

Next up Natalia will present her own side of the story in The Curious Case of Natalia Grace: Natalia Speaks, which will premiere in the summer.

“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,” Natalia said in a preview on Entertainment Weekly (EW).

“You can ask anybody in my family now. You can ask Bishop Antwon and Cynthia Mans that -- just ask them, ‘Has she ever done anything?’ They will tell you who I really am. They’re not going to lie and neither am I,” she said.

The story is also being turned into a drama

In August last year EW reported that Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo is in the running to star in an upcoming eight-episode series for Hulu. According to EW, the miniseries will tell the story of a family who adopt an 8-year-old girl with dwarfism, but they start to suspect she is an adult.

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