By Antonia Noori Farzan
Washington – She had travelled from Ukraine to the rolling hills and cornfields of Indiana, only to wind up on her own in a strange city.
When police checked in with the girl in September 2014, it had been more than a year since she had seen or heard from her adoptive parents, who had changed her age from 11 to 22 on official documents and rented her an apartment before moving to Canada and leaving her behind.
That was only the start of the bizarre criminal case enveloping Michael and Kristine Barnett.
According to local media outlets, the couple, who have since divorced, haven't denied abandoning the girl just a little more than two years after they adopted her. But they disagree about whether she actually was a child – or an adult pretending to be one.
Authorities have said that the girl suffers from a rare bone growth disorder that results in dwarfism. But Kristine Barnett, 45, told WISH-TV that even using the term “girl” to describe her was inaccurate.
WATCH: Woman at centre of adoption scandal speaks out
She told the station that the adoption was a “scam” and that the girl was a diagnosed psychopath and sociopath, who had been an adult the entire time they knew her.
Her former husband, 43-year-old Michael Barnett, told a different story when interviewed by police. As far as he was concerned, police said, the girl was a minor when they switched her age and left her behind in Lafayette, Indiana.
He also told detectives that his wife had counselled the girl to tell people that she was 22 if questioned, and to explain that she just looked young.
Before the criminal charges were filed, the pair were best known as the parents of “boy genius” Jake Barnett, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2.
Warned that he might never speak or have normal social interactions, Kristine began tutoring him at home. By the age of 12, when he was profiled in the Indianapolis Star,
Jake was taking college math classes and was being courted for research positions. Not long after the article appeared, he had his first paper published in an academic journal. National news outlets soon came calling, drawn to the feel-good tale of a child prodigy who emphasized that an autism diagnosis shouldn't be considered a bad thing.
Unmentioned in the articles was the fact that the family had also adopted a disabled girl from Ukraine, who in 2010 came to live with them and their three sons in their cosy suburban home north of Indianapolis.
The girl would later tell detectives that a different adoptive family had initially brought her to the United States in 2008. Though no details are provided in the police affidavit, there were apparently complications, because the Barnetts adopted her two years later.
Court records show that the Barnetts repeatedly tried to determine the girl's exact age. In June 2010, the year that she was adopted, one doctor estimated that she was 8. In 2012, another doctor conducted a skeletal survey and determined that she was likely 11, a year older than previously thought.
That same year, authorities say, the couple went to an Indiana probate court and legally changed their daughter's age to 22. 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 that the girl “has made a career of perpetuating her age façade,” since hospital officials declined to comment.
The same document also claims that 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.
Amid this backdrop of familial drama, the Barnetts became prominent advocates for children with autism. Early in 2012, CBS' “60 Minutes” devoted a segment to 13-year-old Jake Barnett, who they described as a “a math and science prodigy.” A diminutive dark-haired young girl dressed in a white cardigan can be seen in some of the footage, sitting quietly at a family dinner.
In 2013, Kristine Barnett's memoir, “The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism” was published by Random House. NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan wrote in The Washington Post that the book was “compulsive reading,” adding, “Barnett not only fights heroically on Jake's behalf, she also beats down every other obstacle that life hurls at her and her family.”
Meanwhile, not long after his 15th birthday, Jacob began taking classes at the prestigious Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. His parents told the Star that they moved the whole family to Canada in the summer of 2013 so that he could follow his passion, putting their Indiana home on the market.
Around that same time, the Barnett's adopted daughter told police, her parents rented her an apartment in downtown Lafayette, home of Purdue University. She knew no one there. Michael Barnett later told detectives that he and his then-wife paid the rent on the apartment, but didn't provide the girl with any other financial support.
What happened next is unclear, though an anonymous law enforcement source told WLFI that the girl's neighbours “took her under their wing.” Court documents obtained by WISH-TV show that she was evicted for not paying rent in May 2014, less than a year after her adoptive parents left her alone in the apartment.
Since she left no forwarding address, court officers weren't able to figure out where she had gone, or follow up with her for the money she owed.
That same year, the Barnetts filed for divorce, according to the station. Though Jake still lives in Canada, where he is pursuing a PhD in quantum gravity at the Perimeter Institute, both Michael and Kristine have moved back to Indianapolis.
In September 2014, the Tippecanoe County Sheriff's Office tracked down their adoptive daughter at the behest of a school principal who had raised concerns, WLFI reported.
Based on the medical records cited in the affidavit, she would have been 12 or 13 at the time. Legally, however, she was well into her mid-twenties. Authorities haven't said what came of the meeting, and another five years would pass before the Barnetts were charged with neglect.
What happened in the intervening years, too, is a mystery. The police affidavit states that the girl left Lafayette and Tippecanoe County in February 2016. Additional court filings unearthed by WISH-TV show that 15 days after that, another couple petitioned to become her guardians.
The Barnetts filed an objection. In January 2018, the station reported, the new couple changed their mind about the adoption, for reasons that weren't specified. The Barnetts' petition was subsequently dismissed.
A Tippecanoe judge dismissed most of the charges in August 2020, deciding that they weren't applicable due to another judge's determination of Natalia's actual age, as well as the statue of limitations being exceeded before the charges were filed.
The latest developments include a decision regarding the neglect charges against the Barnetts was upheld last week in The Indiana Court of Appeals.