Helpless Orphan or Dangerous Adult: Inside the Truly Strange Story of Natalia Grace

A new ID series lays out what happened when Michael & Kristine Barnett accused Natalia Grace, the 6-year-old they adopted in 2010, of being a 20-year-old sociopath. She said she was just a kid.

By Natalie Finn Jun 10, 2023 1:00 PMTags
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Critics had a good laugh when Orphan came out in 2009.

Ostensibly a Bad Seed-style story about a family that adopts a 9-year-old Russian girl with murderous tendencies, the big twist was that—oh, wait—that's no child! That's a 33-year-old Estonian woman with a rare hormonal disorder who, yes, is very dangerous.

"If director Jaume Collet-Serra set out to make a parody of horror film clichés," AV Club noted at the time, "he succeeded brilliantly."

But Michael Barnett alleges he and his now-ex-wife Kristine Barnett fell prey to a nightmare scenario that can't help but evoke the plot of that seemingly implausible movie

Investigation Discovery's  six-episode series The Curious Case of Natalia Grace details Michael's story of a well-intended adoption gone horrifyingly wrong—juxtaposed with input from other observers of the case who find the Barnetts' version of events highly suspect.

The series notes that when Kristine was asked for comment regarding her role in the events depicted in the program, her only response was, "Your network is whack." E! News reached out to her attorney for comment but has not yet heard back.

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How did Natalia Grace come to live with Michael and Kristine Barnett?

Michael says in the series that he and Kristine and their three sons, Jacob, Wesley and Ethan, were living the "pinnacle of life" in 2010: happy family, big house in Westfield, Ind.,, six figures in their bank account. 

They were originally going to adopt a Haitian child, Michael says, but the 2010 earthquake that devastated the island nation shut down the process.  

So, on April 26, 2010, he and Kristine adopted Natalia Grace. Her Ukrainian birth certificate stated she'd been born Sept. 4, 2003, Michael says, and they were told she had a rare type of dwarfism called spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita. 

(Natalia herself has maintained—in interviews and court testimony—that she was a little girl when the Barnetts adopted her, full stop, and did not either threaten to harm or try to harm members of the family.)


Before the Barnetts met her, prospective adoptive mom Judith Irving of Clinton, Ind., recalls in the series falling in love with Natalia's picture but ultimately her husband balked at paying the $25,000 in legal fees that Natalia's existing adoptive parents requested of them.

"In my heart," Judith laments, "Natalia is the daughter I never had."

She says that Kristine later tried to get in touch with her through social media, claiming Natalia was threatening to hurt their family, but Judith was unfazed, explaining that she was a teacher who'd come across plenty of troubled kids.

"I've been threatened, so what?" she notes. "That child needs help, so you get that child help." 

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Another couple who looked into adopting Natalia before the Barnetts, Dwayne and Robin Farris of Austin—who, like Judith, have forms of dwarfism—say they were suspicious when Natalia's former adoptive parents asked to be reimbursed for previous medical expenses for the child, but they headed out to New Hampshire to meet her anyway. And, to them, something just wasn't right.

"I couldn't put my finger on whether it was the situation that was evil, or Natalia, there was something wrong with her," Dwayne says. "And I think that's the first time I've ever completely trusted that intuition."

Why did the Barnetts suspect that Natalia Grace wasn't really 6 years old? 

The day after they adopted Natalia, Michael says in the series, Kristine went to give the girl a bath and screamed when she saw that Natalia had pubic hair. Michael says he searched online whether that was possible, and read that pubic hair could start to appear on a girl as young as 8. But, he continues, he and his wife figured that this was a child who obviously needed love and compassion and it didn't matter if she was a little older than they were told.

(Natalia said on Dr. Phil in 2019 that she was 8 years old, "maybe almost 9," when the Barnetts adopted her.)

A few months later, Natalia told them that she'd been having periods and hiding the evidence, Michael says. A family friend heard in an audio recording says Kristine had found stained socks that Natalia had used as sanitary pads and then thrown out the window. "She said, 'This isn't normal, what have I gotten myself into?'" the friend recalls. "And so I said, 'You need to start finding out how old she is.'"

Kimberly Franklin, Michael's younger sister, recalls in the series hearing that the Barnetts had found "period underwear" hidden in Natalia's room. 

Also within the first few months of adopting Natalia, the Barnetts arranged for a play date with Elva Reyes' daughter, Therese, who had the same kind of rare dwarfism and was also 6 years old.

As Elva and Therese, now 14, recall on the show, it was pretty apparent to them—pointing to pictures of the girls taken in 2010— that Therese and Natalia were not the same age.

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Why do the Barnetts say Natalia Grace was dangerous?

According to Michael and son Jake, who's now 24 and lives with his father, Natalia started acting out, urinating and defecating during car rides, jumping out of the car when it was about to start moving and throwing her brothers' toys into the street.

Then, Michael says, they discovered Natalia had been taking knives from the kitchen and hiding them in her room. A neighbor at the time, Rachel Ambler, recalls the day Kristine and son Wesley came to her house and told her about the knives, after which Rachel told her own daughter that she couldn't play with Natalia anymore. 

They took Natalia to several therapists, Michael recalls in the show, fully expecting she'd be diagnosed with a "severe mental disorder" that could help explain her behavior.

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But they were shocked, he says, when one of the specialists they met with labeled their adopted daughter a sociopath—meaning, she was fully in control of her actions and knew exactly what she was doing.

"'You're all in extreme danger,'" he recalls the therapist telling him and Kristine. "At that point in time, we already knew that. We had been living that."

But, Michael notes, no matter how disturbing Natalia's behavior, he and Kristine never considered taking her back for a minute, still convinced that they (and therapy) could help her.

Even when, he alleges, Natalia poured cleaning fluid into Kristine's coffee and told her, point blank, she was trying to poison her. Jake says in the show that, to this day, he can't drink anything that's been out of his sight. (Natalia has denied purposely putting cleaner into the cup or otherwise trying to poison Kristine.)

How did authorities get involved with the Barnetts and Natalia Grace?

To celebrate the birthday of one of their sons, the Barnetts went to Traders Point Creamery, a working dairy where visitors could milk the cows. Michael says Natalia got a gleam in her eye when staffers warned them to stay away from the potentially lethal electric fence on the property.

Michael alleges that Natalia tried to pull Kristine into the fence and everyone came rushing to the scene of the struggle, where Natalia was flailing about.

Two Traders Point staffers interviewed in the series, however, recall otherwise, with one remembering that the "little person seemed to be more calm and rational" and the mom "seemed to be making the situation worse."

In a video recording of a forensic interview from 2019, Natalia is seen telling a prosecution investigator that her feet had been hurting that day and, when she sat down, Kristine tried to pull her up and then fell—"kind of close to the fence," Natalia says, but she did not try to hurt her mother. 

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Regardless, on that day an ambulance was called to the dairy, Michael recalls, and Natalia ended up committed to Larue Carter, the Indiana State Mental Hospital, for a psychological evaluation.

Hospital employees—who wished to remain anonymous but are heard on the show in audio recordings—shared that Natalia was transferred to the adult wing after they saw pubic hair while administering a sedative injection via her backside.

Once she was around adult male patients, according to the staffers, she flirted with them constantly. After she'd been at the hospital for a few weeks, Michael says, they got a call to come pick Natalia up because she was creating a disturbance with her sexual advances.

Back home, as Michael recalls, Kristine threatened Natalia that if she didn't start telling the truth, she'd have to sleep outside.

She in turn locked the girl out of the house—and though, Michael says, he felt too bad to leave her out there all night, Natalia was outside long enough for a neighbor to see her and call child services.

When did the Barnetts try to cut ties with Natalia Grace?

In 2012, Michael and Kristine petitioned the Marion County Probate Court to have Natalia's official birth date changed from 2003 to 1989, making her 20 when they adopted her. As relayed in the series, the court granted the petition.

The following year the couple moved to Ontario, Canada, so that then-15-year-old Jake—a prodigy who was profiled on 60 Minutes in 2012 and was the subject of Kristine's 2014 book The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing, Genius and Autism—could begin graduate studies.

Natalia stayed behind in an apartment they had rented in Lafayette, Ind. Michael describes a litany of services that were in a two-block radius, including a Salvation Army, a grocery store that took food stamps and a learning center where Natalia was going to get her GED. (Michael continued to pay the rent and bills, Natalia told Dr. Phil.)

Tippecanoe County Jail

What happened to Michael and Kristine Barnett?

Michael filed for divorce from Kristine in 2014 after almost 20 years of marriage and their split was finalized in 2018.

Regardless of how old her updated birth certificate said Natalia was, investigators were not convinced that the Barnetts' hands were clean and went after the couple for neglect.

Michael and Kristine were each charged in 2019 in Tippecanoe County, Ind., with neglect of a dependent, neglect of a dependent causing bodily injury, neglect of a dependent causing serious bodily injury, endangering a dependent's life, abandoning or cruelly confining a dependent, and conspiracy to neglect a dependent.

They both pleaded not guilty. 

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A judge dismissed a number of the charges against Michael in February 2022, but he still went on trial that October on three counts of neglect and one count of conspiracy to neglect a dependent. 

Natalia—who was legally bound to give her birthdate as 1989 on the witness stand—testified that she wasn't capable of caring for herself when Michael and Kristine moved away, that they left her in a second-story apartment with stairs she could barely navigate and she didn't cook or know how to use most appliances.

"I wanted to be with the Barnetts," she said. "I wanted to live with them."

The defense, arguing that she had made it clear that she wanted nothing to do with Michael or Kristine, countered with video of Natalia at the grocery store and crossing a street on her own.

After just a few hours of deliberations, Michael was found not guilty. He was initially subpoenaed to testify against Kristine, but prosecutors ultimately dropped their case against his ex-wife in March. Her trial was scheduled to begin in April.

Asked for comment at the time, Tippecanoe County Prosecutor Patrick Harrington pointed to the language in his motion to dismiss: "The State believes there would be insufficient evidence at trial to prove the charges in this cause beyond a reasonable doubt."

Kristine's attorney, Mark Nicholson, told WLFI's News 18 that his client "can't believe it's over" and that the charges should have never been filed in the first place.

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What has Natalia Grace had to say about the allegations she was a child "masquerading" as an adult?

Natalia has denied Michael and Kristine's allegations that she was a con artist posing as a kid, and dangerous to boot.

"It's not true," she said on Dr. Phil in November 2019. "It's not true at all. I just want people to hear my side."

Natalia denied hiding knives in her room, attempting to poison Kristine or trying to shove her into an electric fence. As for footage of her seemingly running errands on her own, she told the host, "I actually didn't even go grocery shopping. My landlord took me to a gas station or something just to get a couple of things. The Barnetts had given me food, like canned foods and stuff like that."

"I didn't know what to say" when the Barnetts told her they were moving to Canada, she recalled. "I didn't really know what was going on at first. And so, after it happened, I was confused."

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She appeared on Dr. Phil with Cynthia and Antwon Mans, parents of five she'd been living with since 2013—after, Cynthia explained, a friend who was a neighbor of Natalia's in Lafayette called her up, saying there was this girl living all by herself who claimed to be 22 but something was obviously not right.

Cynthia and Antwon, her legal guardians since 2016, call her a "genuine, loving girl."

Natalia has since sat down with ID for the upcoming special The Curious Case of Natalia Grace: Natalia Speaks, due to premiere later this summer.

"The things that Kristine and Michael have said that I have done is a lie," she says in a sneak peek obtained by Entertainment Tonight. "I have never done anything that Kristine and Michael have said that I have done."

Noting that Cynthia and Antwon could speak to who she really is, Natalia says, "It's very frustrating to hear everything that's being said from Kristine and Michael. 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. And people are believing what Kristine and Michael are saying without even hearing my side."

All six episodes of The Curious Case of Natalia Grace are streaming on MAX.

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