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The Curious Case of Natalia Grace - film review

Posted: May 22 2024

Social Work student & staff projects, Social Work
Social Work student & staff projects, Social Work

Interested in Social Work and want to learn more about the subject? The reviews written by our Social Work students and staff help you identify the best media to advance your learning.

This week:

  • Title: The Curious Case of Natalia Grace (documentary series)
  • Directors: Christian and Jackson Conway
  • DOI: 10.1177/14680173241253497
  • Producer: Hot Snakes Media, 2023 and 2024
  • Reviewed by: Thedini Liyanage, Social Work MSc student
  • Available on: Discovery+ 
Cover of The curious case of Natalia Grace

The documentaries centre around the biographical story of a Ukrainian child, Natalia Grace, who has a medical condition known as spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita - a rare form of dwarfism. The film focuses on events that took place between the years 2010 and 2013.

Natalia had moved to the United States in 2006 after spending time in a Ukrainian orphanage and was adopted by the Ciccones until they felt they could no longer provide care. Following this, Natalia had multiple placements with families, however none were followed through. In 2010, Natalia was introduced to Michael and Kristine Barnett, who ran a nonprofit organisation called Jacob’s Place, dedicated to supporting children living with autism. Prior to the adoption, the Barnetts had not met Natalia.

Shortly after the adoption, the Barnetts began to question Natalia’s true age, despite legal documents such as birth records and medical reports confirming Natalia was a child. During the 3-year period, Natalia experienced physical, verbal, and emotional abuse from both the parents - the documentaries provides interviews with family members and features recorded footage to support these claims. Due to Natalia’s medical condition, the Barnetts were informed by medical experts that Grace would need to undergo multiple medical surgeries during her childhood. However, Natalia only had one surgery while with the Barnetts. Additionally, Natalia was removed from public school despite school staff stating Natalia was a role model student and instead, home-schooled by Kristine Barnett. Natalia then spent time in a psychiatric hospital for allegedly trying to kill Kristine Barnett, later being transferred to an adult’s ward. Eventually, Natalia was placed in a half-way house among substance users and was ultimately abandoned to live alone for a year before being moved to another neighbourhood with a high crime rate, in an apartment on the second floor without financial support, food, electricity, or phone service while the Barnetts relocated to Canada leaving Natalia behind.

During Natalia’s stay at the psychiatric hospital, a doctor and a clinical social worker provided a supporting letter to have Natalia’s age legally changed from 8 to 22 years old by a judge without a hearing, no other evidence, or representation of Natalia. At the time, in the state of Indiana, once a person reaches the age of 21, the guardians are no longer legally obligated to provide support (Indiana Code, 2022). Law enforcement agencies investigated Natalia’s case between 2014 and 2019, leading to the Barnetts being charged with neglect of a dependent. However, they were found not guilty, as the prosecutors were barred from providing the evidence suggesting that Natalia was a child. The prosecution case was to be based on neglecting her disability rather than her age. Regardless of age, Natalia was a person with a serious medical condition and required support. Thus, highlighting social services had a duty of care for Natalia. The documentaries features accounts from various individuals, but no input from her social workers. Despite the Barnetts cutting off Natalia’s phone service and removing her contact information for her social worker, the social worker should have followed protocol and conducted unannounced visits, but this was not the case.

The documentaries’ goal was to present three perspectives, the Barnett’s, Natalia’s, and the uncovered facts. It could be argued that the documentaries includes unethical scenes, such as a clip where Natalia’s adoptive brother discusses with Michael Barnett an event where Kristine Barnett kicked Natalia down the stairs. This raises questions since it is crucial evidence supporting Natalia’s narrative, but the adoptive brother was unaware of his mic being on. Additionally, some interviewees portrayed Natalia in a negative light. It is important to emphasize that children who have experienced multiple adoptions, sexual or physical abuse or abandonment, can suffer lifelong trauma and behavioural issues (Kimberg & Wheeler, cited in Gerber, 2019). Furthermore, since the Barnetts faced no legal consequences for their neglect, the documentaries aims to shed light on Natalia’s story and provide some semblance of justice for a child who was falsely labeled as mentally unstable and a danger to others. In reality, she was an abused child left to cope with her disabilities on her own.

The target audience for the documentaries would be the public; however, it can also be seen as essential for social workers and student social workers as it highlights the significance of disability advocacy. Additionally, the documentaries address themes of childhood neglect, child abuse, and adoption, and serves as a sobering example of the failings of the justice system. While case studies are inherently unique and cannot be easily generalized, the themes explored in the documentaries would be relevant to social workers working with children. By sharing Natalia’s story and recognising that she was not just a 22-year-old, but a child who had suffered abuse and neglect, while also having to deal with medical conditions that further imposed limitations upon her, empathy can be fostered, and justice can be sought.

References

“2022 Indiana Code: Title 30.” Trusts and Fiduciaries: Article 2. General Provisions: Chapter 8.5. Indiana Uniform Transfers to Minors Act :: 30-2-8.5-1. “Adult” Defined.” Justia Law, law.justia.com/codes/indiana/2022/title-30/article-2/chapter-8-5/section-30-2-8-5-1/. (accessed 11 March, 2024).

Gerber, M. R. (2019). Trauma-informed healthcare approaches: A guide for primary care. Springer International Publishing.

Kimberg, L., & Wheeler, M. (2019). Trauma and trauma-informed care. In M. R. Gerber (Ed.), Trauma-informed healthcare approaches: A guide for primary care (pp. 25–56). Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-04342-1_2