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Who is Natalia Grace Barnett, the Ukrainian Adoptee Whose Age Was Disputed by the Americans Who Took Her In?
Explaining the sensational case of a disabled Ukrainian adoptee — and the American family who claim she deceived them by lying about her age, and that she tried to hurt them.
Depending on who may be telling the truth, Natalia Grace Barnett could be a young woman just shy of 20, spurned as a child by her adoptive American parents. Or, she may be an adult in her early 30s who allegedly took advantage of that same couple’s child-focused charity, all while concealing from them her much older age.
Somewhere in between those two extremes, there’s a lot of interpretive grey area between what Natalia’s former adoptive parents, Michael and Kristine Barnett, claim about the Ukrainian national and what Natalia herself insists. Ever since arriving in the United States as newly adopted daughter of the former couple (they’ve since divorced), Natalia has maintained that she was born in 2003.
After a lengthy legal battle that eventually cleared them of criminal abandonment and neglect charges, the Barnetts maintain — just as they have since their 2019 arrest — that they unknowingly adopted someone who was much older than the alleged child they first welcomed into their home back in November of 2010.
In a wrinkle that’s drawn comparisons to the 2009 horror movie Orphan — a film about a family terrorized after adopting a supposed 9-year-old girl who turns out to be 33 — the Barnetts say that Natalia didn’t simply take advantage of their good will, she even allegedly tried to hurt them. Though the couple faced and eventually overcame criminal charges, Natalia herself has never been formally accused of any crime.
Who are Michael and Kristine Barnett?
Divorced in 2018 and each now free from abuse and neglect charges dating from 2019, Michael and Kristine Barnett are still united in their shared account of having been deceived 13 years ago by a medically disadvantaged Ukrainian woman masquerading as a child eligible for adoption.
In late 2010, the Barnetts — already foster parents living in Westfield, Indiana — formally adopted Natalia Grace, at the time an alleged 7-year-old child who entered the U.S. adoption process with a Ukrainian birth certificate indicating that she was born on September 4 of 2003.
Natalia came to the Barnett household with a form of dwarfism known as spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita (SEDc) — a rare untreatable condition that affects bone development and limits a person’s growth, sometimes with attendant chronic maladies that include difficulty in breathing and limited mobility.
No one disputes Natalia’s affliction with SEDc. But the Barnetts claim that its effects on Natalia’s appearance allowed her to mask her true older age from the family, even as she allegedly demonstrated antisocial and borderline violent behaviors in the home. In a 2019 Daily Mail article that brought international attention to the case not long after the couple faced charges, Kristine accused Natalia of threatening to stab the couple in their sleep, pouring bleach into Kristine’s coffee, and trying to push Kristine into an electric fence.
The Barnetts suspected soon after adopting Natalia that she was older than her stated age. According to the Lafayette, Indiana-based news outlet Journal & Courier, the couple sought and were granted a court-ordered change in Natalia’s documented birth date, with the state legally acknowledging her to be 14 years older than the family had first believed. For a time, the legal change didn’t alter the couple’s apparent attempts to continue trying to incorporate Natalia into their family. But in 2013, the Barnetts rented Natalia an apartment in Lafayette, Indiana — located about an hour northwest of their Westfield home — and moved without her to Canada, to afford their son Jacob, a physics prodigy, an opportunity to study in Waterloo, Ontario.
The Barnetts’ move, and Natalia’s accompanying alleged abandonment, is what finally brought police attention and the ensuing global media coverage to the case. Thanks to Natalia’s legal age change, the state itself now regarded her as an independent adult. But even though the Barnetts reportedly obtained social services for Natalia, aligned her with American welfare and disability programs, and determined to maintain communication even as they moved to Canada, local law enforcement in Indiana viewed the situation differently.
After a slowly-evolving investigation, both Michael and Kristine were charged in 2019 with a series of crimes stemming from their 2013 move away from Natalia. Though by then divorced, Michael and Kristine each were accused of neglect of a dependent and neglect of a dependent causing bodily injury.
Though nearly a decade had passed since the Barnetts had parted ways with Natalia, their criminal cases have only been resolved within the past year. Michael was quickly found not guilty on eight separate counts by a Tippecanoe County, Indiana jury in October of 2022. The local prosecutor would later successfully petition the court to dismiss all charges against Kristine — a request the court granted in March of 2023.
Throughout the legal ordeal, everyone involved has stuck to their interpretation of the story: The Barnetts continue to maintain that Natalia was not a child when they adopted her, and that in any event, they never abused or neglected her — as either a child or as an adult.
Natalia, meanwhile, has for years insisted that she is closer in age to the date stated on her original Ukrainian brith certificate, and that she never perpetrated any of the harmful household behaviors against the Barnetts that they’ve accused her of. The case has recently received renewed attention, thanks to the May 31 release of Investigation Discovery’s six-part documentary series The Curious Case of Natalia Grace. A companion special highlighting her perspective of events, Natalia Speaks, also is set to debut later in 2023.
What Is Natalia Grace Barnett’s Real Age?
Natalia’s true age has remained elusive. Natalia herself continues to claim that she is a victim of a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, and that she’s never intended to deceive or otherwise harm the Barnett family. Depending on which account you believe, she could be anywhere from 19 to nearly 33.
“It's very frustrating to hear everything that's being said from Kristine and Michael,” she recently shared in a preview of her ID special teased by Entertainment Tonight. "... And because I already don't know who I am and I want to know who I am and what happened to me, but I'm hearing all this stuff that never actually happened from Kristine and Michael. I’m like, ‘It's shocking and it's frustrating.’ Because that's not even true.”
Those remarks echo earlier public comments Natalia has made about her age and her role in the Barnett household. The Barnetts have said they quickly began to suspect Natalia was much older than the young child they thought they’d adopted, though Natalia told the Dr. Phil show in 2019 that the family’s accounts of observing tell-tale evidence calling her pre-teen youth into question — including menstrual blood, pubic hair, and a vocabulary signifying more age-advanced development — were all untrue.
Kristine told the Daily Mail that a family doctor had ordered a bone test for Natalia in 2010, one Kristine said yielded a likely age, at the time, of at least 14 — an approximate 7-year difference from her documented Ukrainian birthdate of 2003. A separate skeletal test done in 2012, though, reportedly revealed Natalia’s age to be younger (around 11), despite coming two years after the earlier 2010 test. Court records reported by BuzzFeed News also revealed that a physician at the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital in Indiana had, in 2010, assessed Natalia’s age to be around 8 years old at the time.
In 2012, the Barnetts petitioned an Indiana court to change Natalia’s legal age, and a judge granted their request, ordering that her birth certificate be adjusted to reflect 1989 as her birth year rather than 2003. The 14-year disparity immediately shifted Natalia’s legal status from that of a minor child to one of an independent adult, changing her legal age from 9 years old to 22 at that time.
Where Is Natalia Grace Today?
Until this year’s docuseries, Natalia had offered few public updates about her life. She was informally taken in by another Indiana couple, Antwon Mans and Cynthia Mans, in 2014. The Mans family petitioned unsuccessfully in 2016 to legally adopt her as their ward. Even though their adoption effort failed, the Mans family has said that they regard Natalia as a teenager and have not experienced any of the deceit or aggravated behavior from her that the Barnetts have alleged.
“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,” Natalia says in the Natalia Speaks preview recently shared by Entertainment Tonight. “They're not going to lie and neither am I.”
Though the Mans family was unable to legally demonstrate that Natalia was a minor eligible for adoption, Natalia reportedly does still live with the family in Indiana. On June 1 of 2023, Cynthia Mans established a crowdfunding campaign to help purchase a wheelchair-accessible van for Natalia, writing on the campaign’s GoFundMe page that, "We are The Mans and Natalia Grace is our daughter. We believe God put her in our life and she is an amazing daughter and a loving sister."