“THE TRUE STORY OF NATALIA GRACE: WHEN THE FILM ‘ORPHAN’ BECAME A REAL LIFE HORROR” #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS EPISODE: In the Warner Bros film, “Orphan”, Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga star as a couple who adopt a 9-year-old girl after losing their own baby … then slowly discover their new daughter is not nearly as innocent as she claims to be. Deciding to adopt a girl at the local orphanage, the couple are immediately drawn to a beautiful little girl by the name of Esther. But innocent-looking Esther is not what she appears to be. The wife desperately tries to get her husband and others to see past Esther’s sweet facade. Now, as her warnings go unheeded… it may be too late — for everyone. The 2009 film was a controversial one; it terrified not just moviegoers, but also adoption agencies and even the federal government. But it was just a movie. Until, ten years later… when it wasn’t.
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In 2009, senators and congressmen joined adoption groups in protesting a horror film called ‘Orphan’, fearing it would lead to hatred of orphans and a drop in adoptions.
They expressed concern over the title character who is (or, rather, appears to be) a homicidal orphan. They sent a letter of protest to the film’s distributor, Warner Brothers, co-signed by leaders of nearly a dozen adoption and child-welfare groups. Some elected officials (three senators and three members of Congress) also joined in the chorus of outrage, worried about the damage the film would do to American society. The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute issued a statement that the “film will have the unintended effect of skewing public opinion against children awaiting families both in the United States and abroad… may impede recruitment efforts by feeding into the unconscious fears of potential foster and adoptive families that orphaned children are psychotic….” Dr. Jane Aronson, a pediatrician and CEO of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation, encouraged a boycott of the film and stated in an interview with NPR that “the concept of featuring a movie that uses the word ‘orphan’ and the concept of the orphan as someone who is evil and demonic just simply perpetuates the stereotypes of what people think of the stranger. It’s xenophobia in its worse form.”
In a nutshell, the protesters were mostly concerned that couples considering adoption who saw the film would choose to remain childless out of fear that the child they adopt might someday try to kill them. This seemed like a bizarre claim to me. As I noted at the time, most theatergoers are able distinguish fiction from reality, and are unlikely to not adopt a child because of something they saw in a movie.
Furthermore, Orphan is not the first horror film of its type, and if fictional films about evil orphans actually caused the American public to shun adoptions or fear orphans, such an effect would surely have been noticed by now. Neither Dr. Aronson nor any adoption groups offered any evidence of this trend.
Despite the letters of protest and threats of boycotts, Orphan was released on July 24, 2009. Were the concerns real, or was it all a publicity stunt, a spectacle of manufactured outrage to attract attention and get votes “protecting the children?”
I contacted several adoption organizations, and none were aware of any decline in adoptions since the film’s release. Adoption expert Mardie Caldwell of Lifetime Adoption Center in Penn Valley, California, said that adoptions were up in the first year after the film’s release, saying: “the inquiries by women who are interested in placing a child for adoption at our facility, Lifetime Adoption Center has increased.”
It seems that all the concern and fear was unfounded. Orphan came and went, leaving the adoption industry apparently unharmed. The real damage may have been to the reputations of the adoption agencies, elected officials, and experts who so badly misjudged the American public.
But then, ten years later, the movie “Orphan” became real as an unsuspecting Christian couple adopts an adorable little girl only to discover she is an adult sociopath masquerading as a child.
But as far-fetched as it sounds, this is the astonishing defense put forward by a mom-of-three and parenting author shockingly accused of felony neglect for abandoning her adopted daughter.
Kristine Barnett, 45, and her ex-husband Michael Barnett, 43, are alleged to have dumped Ukrainian-born Natalia Grace at an apartment in Lafayette, Indiana in 2013 before moving to Canada one month later and breaking off contact.
Police say the girl was left to fend for herself for three years despite having a rare form of dwarfism that means she is 3ft tall and has problems walking.
But in an exclusive interview with DailyMailTV at an undisclosed location, Kristine insists there’s a major flaw in their case: Natalia was not a nine year old – as charging documents claim – she was actually 22.
Barnett claims the true victims are her and her family who were terrorized for years by the mysterious impostor who threatened to stab them in their sleep, pushed her towards an electric fence and poured bleach in her coffee.
‘The movie ‘Orphan’ is exactly what happened.
‘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,’ she 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.”
‘The media is painting me to be a child abuser but there is no child here,’ said Barnett.
‘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.
‘The doctors all confirmed she was suffering a severe psychological illness only diagnosed in adults.
‘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.’
Before criminal charges were leveled at them on September 11, Barnett and ex-husband Michael were hailed as exemplary parents who raised child ‘genius’ Jake Barnett.
Diagnosed with autism at age two, Jake nonetheless had his first academic paper published at 12 and by 15 was studying at a prestigious physics institute.
His story was featured in a 2012 episode of CBS 60 Minutes – but it was the shy girl who sat to his left at the family dinner table that would one day prompt altogether more sinister headlines.
The Barnetts, experienced foster parents who ran a children’s day care from their Westfield, Indiana home, collected the curly-haired youngster from Florida in May 2010.
While living with the Barnetts, Natalia’s adoption was completed in November that year.
In a frank and tearful interview with DailyMailTV, Kristine Barnett insisted she treated the new addition to her family as if she were her biological child.
She had no hesitation in accepting Natalia despite learning she had a bone growth disorder named spondyloepimetaphyseal dysplasia, which causes short stature, skeletal abnormalities and problems with vision.
‘I always wanted to have a larger family and I had very severe complications in my pregnancies and was unable to have more children,’ Barnett explained.
‘I also at that time had a very privileged life. I felt that if I had the ability to help another person in the world then I wanted to do it.’
Given just 24-hours to complete an emergency adoption, the couple raced to an adoption center in Florida to sign the paperwork and meet their ‘six-year-old’ daughter.
They gleaned precious few details of her background: Natalia had been in the US for two years, had a Ukrainian birth certificate reading September 4, 2003 and needed a home immediately because her previous adoptive parents suddenly gave her up – for undisclosed reasons.
‘Out of compassion for their situation I didn’t want to press them for information on what had gone wrong,’ the mom went on.
‘Natalia was extremely nervous. You could see she was going to need a lot of support and care. We did notice immediately in the parking lot that she couldn’t walk. There was nothing in the paperwork stating that.’
Over the next few days the couple showered Natalia with attention, taking her to Disney World, enjoying ice creams, treats and playful pillow fights with her three brothers to slowly bring her out of her shell.
When they took Natalia to a beach for the first time, she did something that would leave the couple speechless.
‘The boys rushed into the water and Natalia wanted to be carried into the ocean. Michael and myself were physically exhausted so we asked her to wait just a few minutes,’ she said.
‘With that she just got up and ran into the ocean. I remember looking at Mike and thinking, what’s going on? She couldn’t walk a second ago and now she just got up and ran.’
Barnett grew more alarmed when she saw the little girl naked for the first time.
‘I was giving her a bath and 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 added.
There were further clues to an apparent deception: 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.
‘At the time I ran a little school and I remember she said to me, these children are exhausting, I don’t know how you do it,’ Barnett went on.
‘I was like, you’re supposed to be a child yourself. It was like something another mom would say as she dropped her kids off.
‘It’s very hard to decipher how old she is because she has such a unique look. But at that time I started to believe she was probably a teenager.
‘But I didn’t have any regrets. This was what I wanted to do. I felt overwhelming love for her.’
Barnett says she soon began finding bloody clothing in the trash suggesting Natalia was having her period and trying to conceal the evidence.
She sought out the help of her family physician who ordered bone density tests to establish Natalia’s age.
When the results suggested the little girl was indeed at least 14 or older, Barnett says she switched the princess outfits and pink dresses for more appropriate clothes.
But as questions swirled around her age and true identity, Natalia’s behavior begun to deteriorate.
Barnett recalls watching aghast on a baby monitor as Natalia attacked a baby boy when she was out the room.
When they attended therapy together Natalia scoffed at the ‘childish’ bonding exercises.
By 2011 Barnett says that Natalia was smearing bodily fluid on walls, making death threats and hearing voices as her mental health broke down.
Natalia would spend the next year or so being treated for various psychiatric disorders, spending days to weeks at a time at the St Vincent Indianapolis Stress Center.
When Barnett claims she tried to drag her on to an electric fence during a 2012 birthday outing, Natalia was placed long-term at a state-run psychiatric unit because she allegedly posed a risk to others.
It was during treatment that Barnett insists that Natalia confessed to being far older than she appeared.
Barnett presented DailyMailTV with a trove of paperwork that appears to confirm her version of events – and that health care professionals shared her grave concerns.
One clinical therapist in January 2012 said Natalia claimed to them that she was 18.
Then, at Larue Carter Hospital in Indianapolis, in June 2012, staff said she had described how she had tried to kill family members and had no remorse about it, with Natalia going as far as to describe it as fun to staff.
Most revealing of all is perhaps a letter from the Barnetts’ primary care physician Andrew McLaren MD, dated March 2012, in which he says Natalia’s 2003 birth date was clearly inaccurate and that Natalia had made a career out of pretending to be a young child. He said Natalia fooled him, her parents and other physicians.
It was also in 2012 that police first began asking questions, although correspondence reviewed by DailyMailTV suggests they were trying to establish whether an immigration fraud took place before the Barnetts had any involvement with Natalia.
Detective Scott Clouse of the Westfield City Police Department told them via email that he had referred the case to the FBI and ICE because he suspected there was ‘false age reporting’ prior to Natalia leaving Ukraine.
Clouse died of cancer four years ago but Captain James Lilly, a former colleague, told DailyMailTV that, while he vaguely remembered the case, he did not think the FBI pursued it further.
In June of 2012 the Barnetts successfully applied to Marion County Superior Court in Indianapolis, Indiana to have Natalia’s age ‘corrected’ so she could receive the appropriate psychiatric treatment for an adult.
In documents seen by DailyMailTV, Judge Gerald S. Zore accepted the couple’s allegations were ‘true’ and revised Natalia’s date of birth to September 4, 1989 – changing her age from eight to 22.
At this stage, Barnett points out, Natalia was considered an adult by the state of Indiana and was legally responsible for herself.
Even so, Barnett says she and her husband rented an apartment for Natalia when she was discharged from secure psychiatric care in August 2012 and placed under the supervision of state healthcare provider, Aspire Indiana.
They further helped her get a social security number, apply for benefits, food stamps and an ID.
When Natalia caused problems at the property and was evicted they stepped in again to prevent her from being homeless, renting a new apartment for her in Lafayette, Tippecanoe County.
Barnett said she was communicating daily with Natalia and even came up with a plan for Natalia to enroll in college to get her high school diploma and study cosmetology.
‘I said I’ve been taking care of you here as an adult, I will do one more year of financial aid, the exact same thing I am doing for all of my children,’ she said.
‘I co-signed the lease and paid for the rent up front for a year. I did everything you would do when you send your child off to college, I helped her with groceries and bought furniture at Target for her.
‘I was optimistic, she had a concrete plan for her life. She had food stamps. She had social security income for the rest of her things. She had demonstrated she was able to live.’
By 2013 Barnett had published a memoir about Jacob, now aged 21, entitled ‘The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism’.
That same year they moved to Canada so Jacob could attend the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, leaving Natalia behind at her rented apartment.
By then, however, Barnett says Natalia had vanished and stopped returning her calls.
Barnett told DailyMailTV she feared Natalia had stopped taking her medication and was probably posing as a child again for another unsuspecting family.
‘I had found a little pink dress in her closet and a little pink bicycle parked beside her house,’ she said.
‘I would have forced her back into treatment but I couldn’t do that any longer because she was an adult.
‘She discontinued communication with me. What I did get was a letter in the mail stating that she had changed Michael from the beneficiary of her social security income to someone else.
‘The last time we spoke on the phone, she told me she was cooking spaghetti for her new family.
‘I did not abandon anyone. I went to Canada to further my son’s education. These accusations are absolutely devastating.’
The Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Department meanwhile presents a very different version of events.
A September 11 affidavit of probable cause obtained by DailyMailTV states that an expert at the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital named Dr. Riggs carried out bone density tests on Natalia in June 2010.
It concluded she was aged approximately eight years old.
A further skeletal test carried out two years later at the same facility concluded she was around 11 years old.
The affidavit reveals that it was Natalia herself who told police in 2014 that she had been ‘left alone’ when her adoptive parents moved to Canada, with cops concluding she was a ‘reliable and credible’ witness.
It does not explain, however, why detectives waited five years to put the allegations to Michael Barnett, who divorced Kristine in 2014, remarried and has settled back in Indiana.
The document says that when an officer spoke with Michael on September 5 he admitted he knew all along that Natalia was a minor child when she was allegedly abandoned.
Furthermore the affidavit adds: ‘Michael Barnett admitted Kristine Barnett told Natalia to tell others Natalia looks young but was actually 22.’
However his Indianapolis-based attorney, Terrance Kinnard, denied that his client made any such admission of guilt.
‘The police affidavit is not true. Michael never said he knew Natalia was a child,’ he told DailyMailTV.
‘Police knocked on Michael’s door and he spoke to them, for three hours, without an attorney present. The statements he gave were clearly taken out of context.
‘My client and I have absolutely no idea why the district attorney has chosen to level these accusations against my client and Kristine. The affidavit has been very selective in the medical reports it has chosen to cite.’
As for Natalia, neither the Barnetts, their attorneys, nor seemingly anyone else involved in this baffling case, appears to know her whereabouts.
And despite the possibility she is now 30 years old, Natalia’s full court records will remain sealed until a court decides otherwise because adoption cases are treated as confidential.
She last saw her adoptive father was when the final chapter in their painful, confusing relationship played out at Tippecanoe Circuit Court in 2016.
There, a couple named Antwon and Cynthia Mans unexpectedly applied to become Natalia’s guardians which meant proving she was a minor and restoring her original birth date.
The Barnetts filed an objection, claiming Natalia was an adult.
Records are not publicly available but DailyMailTV has established that a judge ordered a fresh hearing to establish Natalia’s age, with Michael Barnett and a number of experts giving evidence.
‘Natalia was living on her own and a couple wanted to become her guardians. Thinking she was still a child, the couple tried to overturn the 2012 result,’ explained Michael’s attorney Kinnard.
‘This time the hearing was even more in depth, not only did the judge look at medical reports and other documents, but witnesses came before the court to explain why they were certain Natalia had been 22.
‘The judge upheld the original results and the couple dropped the guardianship petition.
‘The most-disturbing thing about this is Michael has told me the police investigator who is heading the latest allegations against them was actually present.’
DailyMailTV asked the Tippecanoe County Prosecutor’s Office in Lafayette for comment.
Chief Deputy Prosecutor Jason J. Biss responded: ‘Pursuant to Rule 3.6 and Rule 3.8 of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct, a Prosecutor is prohibited from making extrajudicial or out-of-court statements, including public comments, which would have a prejudicial impact on a case and/or defendant.
‘I would defer you to the contents of the public court record, namely the filed Probable Cause Affidavit.’
With Kristine and Michael Barnett both vociferously proclaiming their innocence, it’s a question that will likely not go away.
‘I have been cooperative the whole time. I have been truthful with people the whole time,’ said Kristine, choking back tears.
‘I am being charged by the state of Indiana for crimes against a child when the state of Indiana has determined multiple times that Natalia was an adult,’ added Kristine, who asked for her location to remain confidential over threats her family have received.
‘From day one this was a mission of love. But when you bring a child into your home, you expect them to be a child. ‘To be accused of this is a unconscionable to me. It’s just horrifying.’
Kristine Barnett surrendered to authorities on Thursday, September 19 and was released after posting a $5,500 bond.
Ex-husband Michael surrendered to Tippecanoe County Jail in Lafayette on September 18 and was immediately released after having his mugshot taken and posting $5,000 bail.
Is Natalia Grace’s story also a case of fraud, a sociopathic adult mimicking a child, or parental abandonment on the part of the Barnetts? This bizarre story is still unfolding.