The Ukrainian orphan accused of being an adult hung out at a drug recovery house and took adult education classes after her adopted parents moved to Canada

Kristine and Michael Barnett

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Kristine and Michael Barnett
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Tippecanoe County Jail

  • The Ukrainian-born girl with dwarfism at the center of an adoption scandal is alive and well, now living with a new family.
  • Kristine Barnett and ex-husband Michael Barnett were charged with abandoning their adopted daughter Natalia Grace when she was nine years old. They pleaded not guilty.
  • They are currently free on bail and claim Natalia is actually an adult woman pretending to be a child. Doctors have been unable to conclusively determine her age.
  • After living on her own for several years, Natalie Grace is now in the custody of Antwon and Cynthia Mans, who tells Insider she’s “really just fine.”
  • Between her two guardianships, Natalia attended local adult education classes and hung out at a drug and alcohol recovery house while living on her own.
  • Another Indiana parent who adopted a child from Ukraine told Insider that the country’s adoption system is corrupt and has a history of falsifying birth certificates.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

LAFAYETTE, Indiana – Depending on whom you believe, Natalia Grace – a Ukrainian-born orphan with a rare form of dwarfism – is either a sweet 15-year-old or a 30-year-old con artist.

Natalia’s story has gone viral. And while it may seem like the plot of a horror movie, it’s a real-life drama tearing apart two Indiana families.

Antwon Mans, one half of the couple currently caring for Natalia, told Insider his family is living a quiet life in a new town. For the most part, they’ve remained unaware of the media coverage she’s received.

“God is protecting us. He is fighting our battles for us, and we are really just fine,” Mans said.

But things aren’t so fine for Natalia’s previous adoptive parents.

A child, or an adult posing as a child?

In September, Kristine Barnett, 46, and her ex-husband Michael Barnett, 43, were charged with neglect of a dependent, to which they pleaded not guilty. When the two moved to Canada in 2013 with their other children, they left Natalia on her own. She took local adult education classes and socialized in a halfway house until the Mans family took her in three years later.

During the Barnetts’ first court appearance, Michael Barnett’s attorney, Terrance Kinnard, suggested the Barnetts were caught in ruse when they gained custody of Natalia in a 2010 emergency adoption. While they were led to believe Natalia was six years old, she was really a troubled adult posing as a child, Kinnard said.

In a Facebook post, Kristine agreed with her ex-husband’s attorney and blamed the state of Indiana for their troubles.

“I am praying for Natalia, who I believe is ill, and am dismayed by the way our mental health system treats people,” she wrote. “The state of Indiana actually discharged Natalia into a half-way house over a year before this, making her homeless and mentally ill.”

‘She had periods. She had adult teeth.’

In an interview with the Daily Mail, Kristine claimed that shortly after adopting Natalia – who was born with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita – she noticed things that made her question her daughter’s age.

“Natalia was a woman. She had periods. She had adult teeth. She never grew a single inch, which would happen even with a child with dwarfism,” she said. “The doctors all confirmed she was suffering a severe psychological illness only diagnosed in adults.”

Kristine claimed that, once confronted, Natalia rapidly became out of control. She smeared bodily fluids on the walls, poured bleach into Kristine’s coffee, drew violent pictures of her new family, and attempted to push Kristine into an electric fence, Kristine said.

Read more: Parents who adopted a 6-year-old girl now say she was actually in her 20s. A rare form of dwarfism may have contributed to the confusion.

According to court documents reviewed by Insider, Natalia was hospitalized multiple times in 2011 and 2012 at St. Vincent Stress Center in Indianapolis, and later at a state-run facility. Psychiatric testing revealed that she had mental illnesses consistent with patients in their late teens or twenties, the court records say.

In June of 2012, according to court records, a Marion County Superior Court in Indianapolis changed Natalia’s birth year from 2003 back to 1989 – legally altering her age from 8 to 22 years old.

Kristine Barnett in 2013.

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Kristine Barnett in 2013.
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Donna Svennevik/Disney-Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Following the change, the Barnetts tried to set her up for life as an independent adult – twice. They initially placed her in a state-run home through a program called Aspire Indiana, but she was evicted, the Barnetts told the Daily Mail. They then rented her an apartment in Lafayette, Indiana. Kristine said she paid Natalia’s rent for a year, and set her up with Social Security, disability aid, food stamps, and Medicaid.

A month later, the Barnetts moved to Canada to help their son Jacob – a child prodigy and the subject of Kristina’s book, “The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism” – attend the prestigious Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. Natalia stayed behind in Indiana.

Natalia attended adult education classes despite claiming to be a child

While living on her own, Natalia enrolled in school at the Lafayette Adult Resource Academy (LARA) to work on her GED. That’s where her next-door neighbor, Margaret Axsom met her.

“She loved to talk. She could be shy at first, but once she got going, she had something to say about everything,” Axsom told Insider.

While Axsom said she didn’t believe it was right for a family to leave the country with a young woman recently out on her own, she also doesn’t think Natalia was a child.

“I’m not sure how old she was, but she had to be at least 18,” she said. “She didn’t seem worldly enough to be 30 now. I think it must be something in between.”

The Lafayette Adult Resource Academy.

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The Lafayette Adult Resource Academy.
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Google Maps

The two not only attended classes together but socialized in the neighborhood, often meeting up with people from a drug and alcohol recovery house at the end of the block.

“I never worried about her going over there because I was always with her,” Axsom said. “[The residents] had to take an alcohol test every night, stay clean, and sign in and out. Natalia was lonely and just wanted people to talk to.”

In September 2013, things changed. Natalia disappeared.

“She just up and vanished,” Axsom said. “They asked at school, and I said I didn’t know where she went.”

That night, Axsom learned that Natalia had been evicted from her apartment. A few days before Natalia vanished, Police had stopped by to interview Axsom about her, she said.

“They kept telling me they just wanted to put her somewhere safe,” Axsom said.

Natalia couldn’t take those classes unless she was an adult

LARA doesn’t allow just anyone to take classes. To attend, students need to take a placement test to determine their knowledge of math, English, history, and science. If they don’t demonstrate a junior high level of knowledge, they are asked to work with a tutor to get up to grade level before being permitted to enroll.

“This is adult ed. We cannot have anyone under the age of 16,” LARA teacher Meg Foley told Insider. “Anyone under 18 must be enrolled by a parent and have written release from the school they came from.”

Antwon and Cynthia Mans (left) and Natalia Grace.

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Antwon and Cynthia Mans (left) and Natalia Grace.
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Facebook

For several years, Natalia’s whereabouts were unknown.

Then, in April 2016, a new couple entered the story: Antwon and Cynthia Mans. The two asked Tippecanoe County’s family court if they could take over as her guardian.

Read more: The Ukrainian orphan accused of being an adult was found living with another family in Indiana

Natalia, it turned out, was still living in the same city where she’d last been seen. In fact, she was living just a block away from LARA.

Michael Barnett, by then separated from Kristine, attended the Marion County Court hearing with his attorney. Barnett and a doctor disputed the Mans’s claim about Natalia’s age. In January 2018, the Manses withdrew the petition to change Natalia’s birth year, and the case was dismissed.

Other adoptive parents say Ukraine has a history of falsifying birth certificates

Kim Thompson, another Indiana parent who adopted a child from Ukraine, says she may know why Natalia’s age is so confusing.

“I will say that Ukraine is above all else corrupt, and birth certificates were completely fabricated,” she told Insider.

Her son, she said, once explained to her how kids determined their ages in the orphanage.

“Kids would base their age compared to the height of other kids,” Thompson said. “If one kid was certain he was 10, a taller kid would be 11, and a shorter kid would be 9.”

Read more: A lawyer for the Ukrainian orphan accused of being an adult posing as a child says her ex-mom is wrong about her age

As for Natalia’s alleged violent behavior towards the Barnetts, Indiana behavioral therapist John Swineheart says it’s not uncommon for someone with Natalia’s background to act out.

“It’s somewhat common for children with severe trauma do things such as smear bodily fluids, become aggressive toward animals and people, or act in an angry or oppositional manner,” Swinehart, who often works with foster and adopted children, told Insider. “The world is unpredictable to them, so they must act in unpredictable ways to deal with it.”

Antwon Mans acknowledged that Natalia had suffered trauma but declined to elaborate.

A dispute over Natalia’s age led to charges against the Barnetts

Estranged from their daughter, the Barnetts moved on with their lives.

But on September 5 this year, Tippecanoe County Sheriff Robert Goldsmith questioned Michael Barnett. Just weeks later, prosecutors filed charges against the Barnetts on the alleged neglect and abandonment of Natalia in 2013.

Michael Barnett in court with his attorney, Terrance Kinnard.

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Michael Barnett in court with his attorney, Terrance Kinnard.
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USA TODAY NETWORK/Reuters

According to court records filed by prosecutors, Natalia was examined by someone named Dr. Riggs at the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis on June 3, 2010. Riggs determined her to be approximately eight years old. A skeletal survey at the same hospital two years later concluded she was around 11.

The records also say Michael Barnett admitted during the September 5 interview that he knew Natalia was a minor when the family left for Canada. Terrance Kinnard, his attorney, denies Barnett admitted anything of the kind.

But Kristine Barnett continues to claim Natalia was always older than she appeared. “Natalia is and always has been an adult in the time that I knew her but that did not stop me from always seeking her best interest,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

While the Barnetts await their trial, Natalia is still living with the Manses

During the Barnetts’ first court appearance, attorneys hinted that the family fell victim to an adoption scam.

However, Indiana’s neglect statute defines a dependent as “a person of any age who has a mental or physical disability.”

In other words, due to Natalia’s physical and mental health, it may not matter whether she was or wasn’t a child when the Barnetts moved to Canada, an Indiana prosecutor told Insider.

A confidential hearing on the matter is set for October 15 with a jury trial set for January 28, 2020. If convicted on both counts, the Barnetts could each face up to five years in prison and fines of $10,000.

Kristine Barnett attending a hearing on September 27.

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Kristine Barnett attending a hearing on September 27.
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USA TODAY NETWORK/Reuters

Kristine lost her job because of the lawsuit, according to a recent Facebook post, and a GoFundMe page has been set up to help her with living and legal expenses.

Natalia continues to live with the Manses and their children, who told Insider they consider her a daughter and sister. Antwon Mans was recently ordained as a pastor. He and his family, including Natalia, have moved into a parsonage behind a small church in a town about an hour from their former home.

For the most part, the family seems like any other family, with kids playing in the yard, friends and family socializing in the house, and attentive adults ready to help their neighbors with a kind word and gentle handshake.

“We’ve tried to post statements on Facebook in the past to ask for our privacy, but people will be people,” said Antwon Mans. “We’re not concerned. God will take care of us.”