There are two big news stories currently consuming America, both involving Ukraine. The first, a call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that has sparked an impeachment inquiry.
The second is about Ukrainian adoptee Natalia Grace Barnett, the baffling question of whether she’s a teenager or a 30-year-old woman, and the allegations about her relationship with her adoptive US parents, Kristine and Michael Barnett. The Barnetts were charged last month for allegedly leaving her to fend for herself in an Indiana apartment when they moved to Canada.
A Daily Mail article about the case drew eerie comparisons to the horror movie Orphan, in which a 33-year-old mentally ill woman pretends to be a 9-year-old who gets adopted by a couple, then proceeds to torment and manipulate the family until they collapse under the weight of her deceit.
Natalia’s story may be far more complicated than that. Here’s everything we know, and don’t know, about this wildly gripping story.
What do we know?
There are few details that either party doesn’t dispute.
Both the Barnetts and the probable cause affidavit charging the couple agree that in 2010, Kristine and her then-husband Michael adopted the girl after her previous adoptive parents gave her up, believing her to be a 6-year-old from Ukraine with a form of dwarfism called spondyloepiphyseal. The condition, which affects the bones in one’s spine, can result in difficulty breathing, early-onset arthritis, and weak joint mobility.
The Barnetts have three other children, one of who is the physics genius Jacob Barnett, whose achievements propelled him — and his parents — to relative fame in the early 2010s. (This is relevant for later, I promise.)
About two years after the adoption, the Barnetts filed a motion with the Marion County Superior Court regarding Natalia’s age, and a judge ordered her birth year changed from 2003 to 1989 on her birth certificate, putting her at age 22 instead of 9.
In 2013, the Barnetts put Natalia up in an apartment in Lafayette, Indiana, and paid for her rent. The family then moved to Canada, leaving Natalia behind.
(Kristine Barnett directed BuzzFeed News to her attorney Philip Hayes, whose office said he is not commenting on the case. Kristine has not responded since.)
What are the Barnetts claiming?
Here’s where it gets real messy. The Barnetts claim that they were duped by a Ukrainian woman posing as a child and that they did their best to care for her given the circumstances.
In an interview with the Daily Mail — that, let’s be real here, is quite literally jaw-dropping — Kristine claimed that soon after the adoption went through, Natalia started behaving in ways that led her to suspect she was not born in 2003, as her Ukrainian birth certificate stated, but much earlier. According to Kristine, Natalia was speaking in an advanced vocabulary and showing signs of what looked like period blood stains on her underwear.
Kristine told the Daily Mail that a bone density test done on Natalia suggested she was at least 14 years old around the time she was adopted. Over the next year, she said Natalia’s mental health began deteriorating. Kristine alleged to the newspaper that Natalia had threatened to stab her and Michael while they slept, poured bleach in her coffee, and once even tried to push her onto an electric fence.
Natalia was treated for various psychiatric disorders by specialists to whom Natalia confessed she was an adult, Kristine told the Daily Mail.
The Barnetts then filed a motion with the Marion County Superior Court in Indianapolis that led to the order to change her birth year to 1989.
In 2013, the Barnetts rented an apartment in Lafayette for Natalia, set her up with a social security number and other welfare programs, then moved to Canada so that Jacob, their genius son, could study at a school in Ontario, Kristine claimed. At that point, Kristine said she could no longer get in touch with Natalia, and she told the Daily Mail she worried that Natalia was pretending to be a child again with another family.
And if you thought this story couldn’t possibly get any stranger, well, buckle up.
What do the police say?
Kristine and Michael Barnett — who have since divorced — were charged on Sept. 11 with two counts of felony neglect of a dependent.
Although Kristine told the Daily Mail that a bone density test conducted after Natalia’s 2010 adoption pegged her for 14, the probable cause affidavit reviewed by BuzzFeed News stated that Dr. Riggs at the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital estimated that same year that she was approximately 8 years old. (A Dr. Andrew Riggs who worked at the hospital died last week.) Medical records also show that in June 2012, a skeletal survey at that same hospital found Natalia to be around 11 years old, according to the affidavit.
The affidavit said Michael Barnett confirmed to police on Sept. 5 of this year that a court changed Natalia’s birth year from 2003 to 1989. He also said Kristine told Natalia to tell people that she was actually 22. Michael allegedly admitted to police that he and Kristine knew doctors at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital determined Natalia was a child, according to the affidavit, and that he believed Natalia was a minor when the family relocated to Canada and left her in Lafayette.
However, Michael’s lawyer, Terrance Kinnard, disputed these details. Kinnard told the Daily Mail that Michael “never said he knew Natalia was a child,” and claimed that the affidavit was “very selective” about which medical reports it cited. (Kinnard did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.)
Does anyone know how old Natalia is?
That’s the million-dollar question nobody can get an answer to so far. Because adoption cases are sealed by the courts in the state of Indiana, documents related to Natalia’s age aren’t publicly available.
Natalia now lives with the Mans family in Indiana, who did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for an interview and has not spoken to any media outlet.
Ladona Elaine Sorenson, a family attorney who was appointed the guardian ad litem (a court-appointed attorney working in the best interest of the child) when the Mans petitioned to become Natalia’s legal guardian in 2016, told BuzzFeed News that while working on the guardianship case, it was quickly apparent that she had to “become involved” in the separate case involving Natalia’s age. She said her impression of Natalia at the time was that she was a teenager, likely in her mid-teens. Sorenson declined to comment further, citing the confidentiality of the case involving Natalia’s age.
A case summary reviewed by BuzzFeed News shows that the Manses dropped their guardianship petition in early 2018, but photos of the family on Facebook indicate Natalia is still very much in their lives.
In a letter dated Oct. 24, 2016 that was obtained by local news outlet WLFI News 18, Michael’s unnamed primary care doctor said that Natalia’s birth year in the Ukrainian birth certificate that the Barnetts were first given was “clearly inaccurate.”
“Over time it has become increasingly apparent that this patient is substantially older than she claimed to be,” the letter read. “[Natalia] has made a career of perpetuating her age facade. She has continued to fool those who have the best intentions.”
BuzzFeed News has not been able to independently verify the letter.
James Metzger, an attorney who represented Michael in the case involving Natalia’s age, told BuzzFeed News, “It was always my opinion, based on the evidence, that she was not a child […] She was certainly above the age of 18.” He would not expand on the details of the case, also citing its confidentiality.
Why is this all coming out now?
The charges filed against the Barnetts in September, coupled with the shocking details from Kristine’s interview with the Daily Mail, sent shockwaves through the country and beyond. Sorenson, the guardian ad litem, told BuzzFeed News she’s received calls from reporters around the world about this case.
We’ve heard the Barnetts’ side of the story and the prosecutors’ version — but the person at the center of this scandal has stayed quiet. Natalia, who today may be either 30 or 16 years old, remains an enigma.
What happens next?
The Barnetts pleaded not guilty to the charges on Sept. 27. Michael Barnett has filed a motion to dismiss both counts of felony neglect of a dependent.
According to court documents, they are scheduled for a pretrial hearing on Nov. 11, and a jury trial on Jan. 28, 2020.
At her court appearance on Sept. 27, Kristine Barnett declined to speak to reporters outside the courthouse. However, Hayes, her attorney, told NBC News that she is looking forward to telling “her story in court.”