A woman and two of her children were found dead in a field over the weekend after wandering the streets of Pontiac, Michigan, for nearly three days amid freezing temperatures, authorities said.
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said the deaths could have been prevented.
Pontiac Mayor Tim Greimel said at a news conference Monday, “This is a horrible, heart-wrenching tragedy.”
The mother, Monica Latrice Cannady, 35, and her sons, Malik Milton, 3; and Kyle Milton, 9; were found dead after 3 p.m. Sunday, Bouchard said at the news conference.
He described them as underdressed and out in the open.
Cannady’s 10-year-old daughter, who survived, fell asleep in the field with her mother and brothers, woke up, walked to a nearby residence and knocked on a door to ask for help, Bouchard said.
“The daughter took the coat off of Mom when she came to,” he said.
He described the field as one of multiple patches of land in the community where homes once stood and vehicles are abandoned. The mother didn’t appear to seek shelter, he indicated at the news conference.
Temperatures in Pontiac over the weekend dipped into the low and middle teens at night, with daytime temperatures reaching the mid- to high-30s Sunday. The family lived in an apartment and had been walking around their community since Friday, Bouchard said.
At one point, Cannady took the family to a lake so she could drink the water, he said.
Bouchard, citing an autopsy, said the cause of death was hypothermia. The manner of death was listed as accidental, he said, but he added his own asterisk:
“I would put accidental-slash-preventable,” Bouchard said.
The woman had been acting paranoid in recent days, Bouchard and her brother said. Bouchard said that she believed someone was tracking her phone with a microchip and that she expressed mistrust for authorities.
“The woman, the mom, was having a mental health crisis. She believed someone was trying to kill her and everyone was in on it, including the police,” Bouchard said.
He said the children’s father was murdered in 2021. The Detroit Free Press reported the killer’s trial recently took place.
“I really want answers, because that’s not her,” Cannady’s brother, Andre Harsten, told NBC affiliate WDIV of Detroit. “She took care of them babies. That was her main priority.”
He said Cannady’s behavior shifted rapidly this month from normal to odd. She recently bought a new car, Harsten told the station, indicating she was feeling fine. But more recently she refused their mother’s suggestion she seek help, he said.
Because the sheriff’s office had been alerted about people walking the streets without proper winter clothes, and because her relatives urged her to seek help, Bouchard suggested there were many points in her timeline when intervention may have saved lives.
He said deputies tried to contact the family but never spotted them. The surviving girl later told authorities her mother told the children to run if they saw anyone approach.
Bouchard said mental health providers and mental health emergency response teams — his office has two people who can respond to reports of disruptive people in crisis — need more funding from legislators in Michigan’s state capital, as well as those in Washington, D.C.
Bouchard said alarming suicide statistics, including those for law enforcement, which can surpass line-of-duty deaths in the U.S., show mental health problems are widespread and often unaddressed.
“We’re seeing death every day as a result of the mental health crisis,” he said. “And it sure would be nice if Washington and Lansing would tune in on it.”
Pontiac City Council member Melanie Rutherford said the crisis hits her community in a different way, with Black women often pressured to be strong and refrain from seeking help.
“We have to have a candid conversation about mental health, especially in the African American community,” she said.
Rutherford said people with mental health problems, as well as their families and friends, can seek help and medication, available free in some cases, without fear of being shunned.
“It is something that is normal. It is something that is treatable. It is something that is valid,” Rutherford said, “and most importantly, you can get the right kinds of treatment and medication.”