Famed parenting author and motivational speaker Kristine Barnett and her ex-husband, Michael Barnett, have been charged with the neglect of their 11-year-old daughter Natalia, whom the couple left to fend for herself in an apartment. But according to a new report, Kristine thinks Natalia, who was adopted from the Ukraine in 2010, was actually 22 when she lived with them. She claims her adoptive daughter is a mentally disturbed adult posing as a little girl, and that she threatened to kill them.
As the Daily Mail, points out, the case mirrors the plot of 2009 horror film Orphan, starring Isabelle Fuhrman as adopted orphan Esther, who attempts to murder her family when it’s revealed that she’s actually 33.
Here’s everything you need to know about this stranger-than-fiction case.
Kristine Barnett was famous for her parenting skills
Author of “The Spark: a Mother’s Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism,” Kristine was praised for raising her “genius” physics prodigy son, Jake, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. Jake’s first academic paper was published at 12, and he later enrolled as an undergraduate student at Purdue University. Kristine and then-husband Michael were featured in a “60 Minutes” report in 2012 highlighting Jacob’s successes. (You can see Natalia appear onscreen next to Kristine in the above video at the 1:37 mark).
A critic for The Washington Post, called the book “compulsive reading,” and adding that, “Barnett not only fights heroically on Jake’s behalf, she also beats down every other obstacle that life hurls at her and her family.” Kristine’s author page on Penguin Random House says that she, “lives in Canada with her husband, Michael, and their three boys, Jacob, Wesley, and Ethan. She is a public speaker on alternative education for children with autism.”
Michael and Kristine Barnett adopted Natalia in 2010
Kristine and Michael reportedly adopted Natalia, who has a form of dwarfism called spondyloepiphyseal, two years after she came to the U.S. from the Ukraine through an adoption program in 2008, according to court documents obtained by several news outlets, including WLFI News 18, ABC 7 Chicago and Fox 59. They were told Natalia was 6 years old.
They all lived together in what The Washington Post describes as a “cozy suburban home north of Indianapolis.”
Kristine claims Natalia threatened her family with violence
Speaking exclusively to the Daily Mail (which obtained purported photos of Natalia), Kristine says her and her family were terrorized by the girl for years. “She would make statements and draw pictures saying she wanted to kill family members, roll them up in a blanket and put them in the backyard,” Kristine told DailyMailTV. “She was standing over people in the middle of the night. You couldn’t go to sleep. We had to hide all the sharp objects.”
“I saw her putting chemicals, bleach, Windex something like that, in my coffee and I asked her, what are you doing? She said, ‘I am trying to poison you,'” adds Kristine. “The media is painting me to be a child abuser but there is no child here.”
Kristine goes on to tell DailyMailTV that Natalia was “a woman, she had periods, she had adult teeth,” and that she “never grew a single inch, which would happen even with a child with dwarfism.”
“The doctors all confirmed she was suffering a severe psychological illness only diagnosed in adults,” she said. “She was jumping out of moving cars. She was smearing blood on mirrors. She was doing things you could never imagine a little child doing.”
Kristine and Michael legally changed Natalia’s age to 22 in 2012
Kristine claims she became suspicious of Natalia’s age the first time she gave her a bath. “I noticed that she had full pubic hair. I was so shocked. I had just been told she was a six year old and it was very apparent she wasn’t,” she told the DailyMail. According to the outlet, there were other signs that Natalia was older—and perhaps not even from the Ukraine:
Natalia shunned dolls and toys, sought the company of teenage girls and appeared to use sophisticated vocabulary way beyond someone her age. She didn’t have any trace of a foreign accent and when the family asked a Ukrainian friend to speak in their native language Natalia couldn’t understand or describe her homeland.
However, according to The Washington Post, Natalia’s doctors determined she was likely 11 in 2012. But that same year, Kristine and Michael were somehow able to change her age to 22 by going to an Indiana probate court. The outlet reports:
Officials haven’t yet explained how they were able to do so, but Kristine Barnett gave WISH-TV a copy of a letter that purportedly came from another doctor who said that the date on the girl’s birth certificate was “clearly inaccurate,” since she had both the teeth and the secondary sex characteristics of a grown adult.
The station wasn’t able to confirm the authenticity of the letter, which alleges the girl “has made a career of perpetuating her age facade,” since hospital officials declined to comment. The same document also claims the girl had been committed to a psychiatric hospital and diagnosed with sociopathic personality disorder in 2012 and, around that time, started to admit that she was over 18. Determining her true age was difficult, the letter states, because records provided by Ukrainian officials were “grossly incomplete” and her condition, spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita, meant that the typical assessments weren’t helpful.
Michael reportedly told police a different story
According to The Washington Post, when interviewed by detectives, Michael said they knew Natalia was a minor when they changed her age to 22. He also that Kristine coached Natalia to tell people that she just looked young.
Michael later appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, saying: “It’s obvious that her records were falsified. This is an adult masquerading as a child.” He also confirmed Natalia threatened to kill them, “We took her to the stress center to have her evaluated that she is having thoughts of harming others, and she is stating out loud that she is attempting to kill Kristine.”
Kristine and Michael abandoned Natalia in an apartment in 2013
According to a probable cause affidavit obtained by NBC News, police first became involved in the case around September 2014 when Natalia told authorities the Barnetts rented her an apartment in Lafayette. Then, she says, they moved to Canada. According to WLFI, Kristine and Michael admitted earlier this month that they didn’t financially support Natalia other than paying rent, after leaving her in the apartment. According t0 court documents obtained by WISH-TV, Natalia was evicted for not paying rent in 2014, less than a year after she was left her alone.
Seven months after moving to Canada, Michael and Kristine filed for divorce, according to WISH-TV.
Five years later, Kristine and Michael were charged with neglect
It remains unclear what happened between 2014 and now—but last month, the ex-couple were charged with two counts of felony neglect of a dependent. According to the Daily Mail, Kristine surrendered to authorities and was released after posting a $5,500 bond. Michael also surrendered and was released after posting $5,000 bail.
The Barnetts pleaded not guilty to the charges, and Michael filed a motion to dismiss both counts of felony neglect. According to Buzzfeed, they have a pretrial hearing in November, and a jury trial on January 28, 2020.
Kristine has posted a Facebook status about her case, writing: “I am sick and devastated from the idea of any of these charges and maintain that they are false charges.”
Natalia’s birth mother has come forward to defend her
Two weeks after the Daily Mail first spoke with Kristine, the outlet tracked down Natalia’s reported birth mother, Anna Volodymyrivna Gava. From her home in the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, Gava told reporters her daughter was born 16 years ago. “Doctors told me to leave the baby,” Gava said. “Both them and my mom told me to leave her. They said the baby would never be good, that she would never be able to move, that she would be chained to a chair or to a bed. She now lives in America with adoptive parents who want to ditch her. I thought everything was okay with her and it turned out that it’s not all okay.”
Gava reportedly hopes to reconnect with her daughter: “Forgive me for what happened 16 years ago. Visit soon for me to see you. We are waiting for you. You have two sisters and two brothers.”
The Daily Mail also claims to have discovered documents at an orphanage in Ukraine that prove Natalia was admitted in October 2003. She was reportedly adopted by the Barnetts seven years later. “They showed a photo on a camera and asked me not to interfere with the adoption,” Gava told the Daily Mail. “[They told me] there are good people in America, they will pay for everything, the child will be normal. I was told that they would do her a surgery which I wouldn’t be able to afford. They said the surgery was some $80,000. Of course I am not excusing myself, I did wrong too for ditching her, leaving her 16 years ago.”
Where is Natalia now?
She lives with the Mans family in Indiana, who did not respond to ELLE.com’s request for an interview. However, photos from their Facebook page seem to show that Natalia is very much a part of the family.