COA: State cannot change adopted female’s age

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While the state failed in its attempt to reinstate criminal charges against a couple who adopted then abandoned a female who they believed was actually an adult, the Indiana Court of Appeals has another option for prosecuting the defendants.

While living in Hamilton County, Michael and Kristine Barnett adopted Natalia in 2010. After their petition for adoption was granted in Hamilton Superior Court, the couple began to believe Natalia, who was born with a form was dwarfism, was older than her date of birth suggested.

The Barnetts then filed a petition in the Marion Superior Court, Probate Division, to have Natalia’s birthyear changed. Based on age estimates provided by a primary care physician and a social worker, the petition was granted and Natalia’s birthyear was switched from 2003 to 1989.

With Natalia’s age changed, the Barnetts moved her first into her own apartment in Hamilton County then into an apartment in Tippecanoe County. The couple paid the first year’s rent and left. Natalia never saw Kristine again and only saw Michael once at a court hearing.

Subsequently, Tippecanoe County Adult Protective Services and the Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Department conducted their own investigations into the situation. Then in September 2019, the state charged Michael and Kristine each with six counts of neglect of a dependent and two counts of conspiracy to commit neglect of a dependent.

The Tippecanoe Superior Court dismissed the counts of neglect of a dependent against both the Barnetts.

On interlocutory appeal, the appellate court affirmed in State of Indiana v. Kristine E. Barnett and Michael P. Barnett, 20A-CR-1967.

The state argued, in part, that the Tippecanoe Superior Court erred in applying issue preclusion to exclude evidence that Natalia was a minor when the Barnetts adopted her. The state asserted it did not have a full and fair opportunity to litigate her age because it was not a party to the age-change order proceedings.

However, the Court of Appeals noted a Marion County deputy prosecutor did file an appearance in the original age-change case and filed a petition for appointment of a guardian ad litem for Natalia on behalf of Marion County Adult Protective Services. When the petition was denied, MCAPS did not appeal.

Also, when Antwon and Cynthia Mans, a Tippecanoe County couple who befriended Natalia, filed in Marion County Probate Court a combined motion to vacate the probate court’s 2012 age-change order and motion for relief from judgment, the deputy prosecutor did not appear at the hearing on behalf of MCAPS. At the conclusion of the hearing, the probate court determined Natalia’s birthyear would remain 1989.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals determined the Tippecanoe County Prosecutor’s Office had a full and fair opportunity to litigate Natalia’s age through its privy, MCAPS.

But the appellate panel pointed out the state still has options.

“… (O)ur conclusions in the case before us do not prevent the TCPO from pursuing prosecution of the Barnetts for neglect of Natalia under the theory that she was a dependent because of physical disability,” Senior Judge Ezra Friedlander wrote for the court. “Our conclusions prevent the TCPO from litigating Natalia’s age.”

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