For days, the authorities said, a Michigan woman experiencing a mental health crisis walked the streets of a Detroit suburb with her three children, knocking on doors, asking for food and sleeping outside, underdressed, in below-freezing temperatures.
Sheriff’s deputies found the woman, Monica Cannady, 35, and two of her children, Malik Milton, 3, and Kyle Milton, 9, dead from hypothermia on Sunday, the authorities said. They were in a wooded field where they had been sleeping in their hometown, Pontiac, Mich., a predominantly Black city of about 60,000 about 20 miles north of Detroit.
Ms. Cannady’s 10-year-old daughter survived and reported the deaths to a nearby resident, saying that her “family was dead in a field,” Sheriff Michael Bouchard of Oakland County said at a news conference on Monday. He said the accidental deaths had been preventable and that they represented a larger, systemic failure.
“This tragedy is fundamentally evidentiary of the breakdown of our mental health system in America,” he said. “We don’t give our mental health providers and systems enough support.”
Details provided by law enforcement officials of the family’s final days paint a grim picture: Ms. Cannady was behaving erratically three weeks before her death, family members told the authorities, but she refused to seek professional help. She left her home in Pontiac with her children late last week, fleeing what she believed was a coordinated conspiracy to kill her, the authorities said.
The family knocked on doors in their neighborhood to ask for food, and some residents offered them money. The authorities said they were seen walking for three days without warm clothing, as local temperatures dipped into the 20s and 30s. Sheriff’s deputies, who were alerted by residents, were unable to find them in time to intervene, Sheriff Bouchard said.
Ms. Cannady’s surviving daughter, who was hospitalized with hypothermia-like symptoms, said to investigators that her mother told her and her siblings to run away whenever anyone approached them.
On Saturday evening, Ms. Cannady told the children to lie down in a field, where they froze to death hours later, Sheriff Bouchard said. It was only after Ms. Cannady’s daughter walked to a nearby home and sought help that the authorities were able to find the bodies of her mother and brothers in the field.
Melanie Rutherford, a City Council member whose district includes the neighborhood where Ms. Cannady and her children died, said that Ms. Cannady’s refusal to seek mental health assistance reflects an anxiety that can persist among some Black people.
“When you think about the mental health issues, especially in the African American community, oftentimes we’re scared to tell anyone. And oftentimes we’re mislabeled,” said Ms. Rutherford, who is Black. “We have to come to the realization that mental health is real. Mental illness is real.”
Citing medical privacy laws, Dana Lasenby, chief executive officer and executive director of the Oakland Community Health Network, which provides mental health services to Oakland County residents, said that she could not comment on whether her office was contacted by Ms. Cannady’s family members.
She said that Ms. Cannady’s case had garnered significant attention in Pontiac, and that her organization was using it as an opportunity to discuss the availability of mental health resources in the area.
“We want to be solution focused. We want to add solutions and responses that will help,” she said. “We want to prevent this from ever happening again.”