Pontiac mourns loss of mother, children who froze to death

The shivers from the group of mourners huddled together in Pontiac for a vigil at Branch Street and Gillespie Avenue on Sunday were nothing compared to what Monica Latrice Cannady and her three children had endured.

The field adjacent to the mourners was where Cannady and her two sons, Kyle and Malik Milton — ages 9 and 13, respectively — froze to death. Cannady's only surviving child, a 10-year-old girl, woke up on Sunday, Jan. 15, next to them and went for help.

"You feel your hands get cold? This is what keeps me out here. Monica and her kids were out here all night — in this," Cannady's cousin Alexandria Day told the Free Press Sunday.

At that point, the vigil for Cannady, Kyle, and Malik was over. The balloons had been released. The prayers had been recited. The gospel music had been sung.

But Day lingered until she was the only one left.

"This is me trying to feel how they felt," she said.

Cannady's family said the mother began acting strange a few weeks prior to her death. The children's father was murdered in 2021 and his alleged killer had recently been on trial. Then, on Friday, Jan. 13, Cannady began wandering around Pontiac with her children underdressed for the cold winter temperatures.

She believed "someone was trying to kill her and everybody was in on it ... including police," Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said. She instructed her children to run if approached.

The mother had reportedly told her children to rest in the field near Branch Street and Gillespie Avenue the evening of Jan. 14. Cannady and her two sons died of hypothermia. Their deaths were ruled accidental.

Rhodesia Cannady holds a pink box decorated with photos of Monica and her children during a vigil in Pontiac on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023. Cannady and her two children died of hypothermia in Pontiac after they slept in a field.
Rhodesia Cannady holds a pink box decorated with photos of Monica and her children during a vigil in Pontiac on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023. Cannady and her two children died of hypothermia in Pontiac after they slept in a field.

But what happened to Cannady and her children was out of character for Cannady, her friends and family told the Free Press. They described her as a hardworking, loving, responsible mother. Her kids were described as happy and playful, and full of love for their mother.

"Monica wasn't the type of person who would have her kids out here like this," said Cannady's friend, Darcy Smith. "She was the sweetest person in the world. She would give anything to anyone. She would make sure her kids were taken care of ... she meant the world to everybody. Her kids loved their mama."

Family, friends say more should have been done to prevent tragedy

At the vigil, many spoke of the need to come together as a community in Pontiac to prevent further tragedy.

"There are no more words, only faith," said Pontiac Councilwoman Melanie Rutherford — faith that the Pontiac community will show love to Cannady's family, and to one another.

Vicki Shaw of Auburn Hills places balloons and flowers on the ice before a vigil in Pontiac on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023.
Vicki Shaw of Auburn Hills places balloons and flowers on the ice before a vigil in Pontiac on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023.

Pontiac Mayor Tim Greimel spoke of the need for more mental heath resources and education so the community knows what resources are available, and to help stop the stigma surrounding mental health.

"We need to make sure that the Cannady's did not die in vain," Greimel said.

More:Oakland County authorities release timeline in death of mother, children found in field

Capt. Andre Ewing, a commander in Pontiac for the Oakland County Sheriff's Office, told the Free Press that what happened to Cannady and her children is "a tragedy for everyone."

But Day and Smith expressed anger that both the community and deputies didn't do more to help Cannady and her children.

More:Mother, 2 sons, found dead in Pontiac field; mental health crisis to blame, police say

Deputies from the Oakland County Sheriff's Office had encountered Cannady multiple times on Jan. 13, two days before she and her two children were found dead. Bouchard said the mother refused help from the deputies and appeared lucid, coherent, and not suffering a mental crisis.

Two calls to deputies stemmed from bystanders who saw Cannady and her children walking around town. The first call at about 1 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 13 stated the family had been in downtown Pontiac asking for help. Right before 5 p.m., deputies received another call about the family walking in the area of Rapid Street and Franklin Road underdressed.

A deputy responded to that second call, but his search for Cannady and her children did not live up to the expectations of the Oakland Sheriff's Office and his performance is under internal investigation, Bouchard said. Deputies returned to the area later that evening but did not find Cannady and her children.

A deputy also encountered the family that Friday at a hospital in downtown Pontiac shortly after the 1 p.m. call. Additionally, deputies later that afternoon met with family of Cannady's who sought advice on how to help Cannady receive mental health treatment, according to the sheriff's department. At the time, deputies did not know Cannady was the same woman other deputies had encountered earlier that day, authorities said.

Balloons sit on a memorial for Monica Cannady and her two children in Pontiac on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023.
Balloons sit on a memorial for Monica Cannady and her two children in Pontiac on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023.

After meeting with Cannady's family, deputies performed a welfare check to Cannady's apartment. The family was not home.

But after that Friday, authorities say no one called deputies about Cannady and her children, despite the family stopping by a home on Branch Street that Saturday, telling the occupant she had the wrong address.

"If we would have loved and cared for people, our community wouldn't just let her keep walking like that, a mother and her three children in the cold," Day said.

Cannady was Day's favorite cousin. They were the same age, they grew up together. Cannady lived right around the corner from Day, and they were with each other all the time, Day said.

"She was amazing. It's that simple. She was one of a kind. Irreplaceable," Day said. "I'm going to remember the good things about her. I don't want to remember the bad."

Bouchard: Investing in mental health could have prevented death

In the 1990s, more than a dozen of Michigan's state-run psychiatric hospitals were shuttered in hopes that private companies would take on some of the responsibility.

Today, there are only five state-run facilities, with scores of in-patient beds cut from those facilities and persisting allegations of abuse within their walls.

Demand for adequate mental heath care is higher than ever, but the cuts to state-run facilitates have only led to more encounters with law enforcement and less people receiving care for mental illness, Bouchard said.

"I said at the time, all we're doing is taking away a wide continuum of treatment options, and we're going to dump individuals facing mental health challenges into the street and the criminal justice system," Bouchard told the Free Press.

When he first became sheriff in 1999, Bouchard said, about 8% of the county's jail population received medication for mental illness. Right before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in the spring of 2019, about 42% of the county jail's population received medication, he said.

"So exactly what I said would happen did happen. More and more people are out in the street and in jails, because of mental health challenges," Bouchard said.

Bouchard has strongly advocated for more state and federal funding for mental health resources since the Pontiac tragedy. The Oakland County Sheriff's Office currently has two mental health professionals on staff: including that responds to mental health calls with deputies, helps connect the community with resources and informs deputies on best practices in responding to mental crises; and another that focuses on the mental health of police officers. The other specifically works with officers in the department with their mental health.

But that's not enough, Bouchard said. It didn't prevent what happened to Cannady and her two sons. Bouchard sees benefit in embedding community partners in mental heath within the police department, as well as investing in more training.

"I would love to have a social worker and a mental health worker paid for by the state or the county or the federal government, embedded in Pontiac, as an example. And they would be there to take calls from the community and try to connect the community with some of the hopefully new resources that are also added around the whole county as part of this effort, Bouchard said.

"But they would also be able to share information with us to give us a bigger picture of what we are encountering in the street."

Using Cannady's case as an example, Bouchard said there were no signs of mental crisis or physical harm from the mother or her children, which limited deputies options.

"We see situations tragically like that every day, where people don't have the right clothing. But it may not rise to the point of us, literally laying hands on someone to change that situation,"Bouchard said.

"Had we known she was in a mental health crisis, that would have flipped a different switch and would have caused us to contact either Child Protective Services or a mental health person to try to intervene versus what we were told: 'I don't need your help, I don't want your help.' But at that point, we didn't have a reason to go further."

Some community activists previously told the Free Press that embedding social workers and mental health practitioners within law enforcement agencies does not always reduce harm. While some advocated for no police whatsoever, others advocated for non-police responses to mental health calls, like the CAHOOTS program in Oregon, or the STAR program in Colorado.

Andrea Sahouri covers criminal justice for the Detroit Free Press. She can be contacted at 313-264-0442, asahouri@freepress.com or on Twitter @andreamsahouri.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Pontiac honors Monica Cannady and her children with vigil