Metro Detroit family battles to keep adopted son with violent history in psychiatric hospital

Michigan threatens parents with parental neglect of troubled adopted son.

A Metro Detroit family's adopted son, who has threatened to kill them, is currently in a psychiatric treatment hospital.

Now, the family says the state of Michigan is threatening to charge them with neglect if they don't take their 16-year-old adopted son, Alex, home. The family is terrified and they have filed a lawsuit.

Greg and Tonya Burnett, from Brownstown Township, say when they got married, they knew they wanted biological children, but also wanted to adopt.

"We saw him and we fell in love with his mannerisms, the way he was talking about baseball. He was just adorable," Tonya said. "We didn't expect any child going on 10-years-old to come into our home without issues. Adoption itself is trauma."

"The first year is what they call the honeymoon period - it was perfect. It wasn't until he started feeling secure that he started to test us."

Tonya said Alex would ask questions, like, "If I push you down the stairs, are you gonna get rid of me or are you still gonna love me?" 

According to the lawsuit filed against the state of Michigan by the Burnett family, before Alex was adopted, he "suffered horrible abuse and abandonment" that manifests itself in "multiple psychological disorders," including "reactive attachment disorder."

The lawsuit states, "despite repeated treatment," there are "no signs of the disorder subsiding."

"He also attacked me while I was driving my car," Greg said. "He's attacked teachers, he's smashed his head against the floor until their was blood all over the place. He's attacked police officers who came to the school to restrain him. He's tried to grab their guns and he's damaged equipment in their vehicles."

The lawsuit states Alex has been admitted to numerous hospitals for "violence," including attacks on hospital staff and attacks on patients. It also states he has been "hospitalized over 20 times with the same outcome."

Alex is currently being treated at the Hawthorne Center in Northville, operated by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The Burnetts say they're deathly afraid of their own adopted son.

"We have some detailed letters that we have found about how he will kill us in our sleep," Greg said, the letters reading in part, "I will wait to kill you, it will happen in your sleep."

The latest concern, according to the lawsuit, comes after the Hawthorne Center stated "it will release the child despite plaintiffs repeated fears of eminent harm."

The lawsuit goes on to state the "Hawthorne Center has indicated if plaintiffs do not take the child back into their home," the center will "report the plaintiffs for parental neglect and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Child Protective Services "would pursue the charges to the fullest extent of the law."

"I can't have my biological children upstairs on the same level with him threatening to kill us in our sleep," Tonya said. "I want to see him placed somewhere he can get the daily help and therapy he needs, because eventually, he's going to be 18, and he's going to be released to the streets, and I fear for his future, I fear for others around him, I fear for him."

MDHHS wouldn't comment on the ongoing lawsuit. The Burnetts told Local 4 they want to keep their parental rights and say none of this is Alex's fault. They are just hoping to get the care he needs.

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About the Authors:

Karen Drew is the anchor of Local 4 News First at 4, weekdays at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. She is also an award-winning investigative reporter.

Ken Haddad has proudly been with WDIV/ClickOnDetroit since 2013. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters, and helps lead the WDIV Insider team. He's a big sports fan and is constantly sipping Lions Kool-Aid.