Skip to main content

LeDuff: How did freezing family fall through the social safety net?

Correction: A previous version of this column underrepresented the amount the state spends per person on public mental health care.

A paranoid woman wanders around the city streets in the bitter cold, her children wrapped in bed sheets. Monica Cannady and her sons, 9-year-old Kyle and 3-year-old Malik, are found frozen dead last Sunday in Pontiac in an empty field near what was once housing projects.

A horrified community wants to know: How could this happen? Was the state or county mental health system previously aware of Cannady's dysphoria? Had they come in contact with her and her children before?

Mental health bureaucrats won't say. They cite privacy and confidentiality concerns. But those are excuses. Nobody is asking them to divulge Cannady's diagnoses or the family's private details. What we want to know is if the system works. But the bureaucrats hide behind words.

Through their silence, they allow the blame to fall at the boots of lawmen. The Oakland County Sheriff's Department had multiple interactions with the woman and her children over that frigid weekend, imploring the woman to seek help or at least come into the warm station where they would get her children some coats.

One deputy in particular may not have done a full sweep of the area where the family was last seen, as he was ordered to do. Now he's under investigation. We know this because Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard does not hide behind words.

"How do we not just as a police agency, but societally, how do we prevent stuff like this in the future?" asks Bouchard. "How do we prevent people from falling through the cracks."

How indeed?

Michigan spends about $3 billion a year for mental health care for 300,000 poor and indigent. That works out to be about $10,000 a person. Where does that money go?

The feds and the state send the money to 10 specific health plans, which in turn contract with county health authorities, which in turn contract with local clinics and hospitals and outreach agencies. That's a lot of bureaucracy. That's a lot of pay checks. And that leaves a lot of manic people slipping through a moth-bitten social safety net.

Every time there is a tragedy like this freezing of a woman and her babies, or a mass shooting, or a police confrontation with a citizen who has lost the lightening, society calls for more mental health outreach.

But where are the mental health workers assigned to the police force, Bouchard would like to know? Where has all the money gone? Billions were sent to Michigan and its counties and municipalities to help dig out of the economic and mental malaise caused by the pandemic. Where did that money go?

Why is a sheriff left to beg, and his deputy who is not sufficiently trained in mental health crises left to hang in the wind?

The state Department of Health and Human Services is an unmitigated disaster. We learned the depths of its incompetence from its see-no-evil response to nursing home deaths during the COVID pandemic, taking little responsibility for the lost lives of the elderly it was charged to protect.

And now the agency remains silent on the death of these three unfortunate souls.

It is important to note that Michigan's child welfare system is so decrepit that it's been under federal oversight for 15 years. A report last year showed lax oversight of foster care homes, and child abuse investigations routinely left uncompleted.

"It was really depressing to read how little the state has accomplished," said Judge Nancy Edmunds of the U.S. District Court of Michigan's Eastern District, last year. "If anything, we've slipped backwards."

We don't know the specifics of the life and times Monica Cannady or her children. And we probably never will. That's because bureaucrats prefer to hide behind empty words.

What we do know is that a sick woman was wandering sleepless, trying to avoid the police and received no help.

Insomnia is a malady of the manic. But it is also a curse on the guilty. Let's hope our public officials wake up and actually accomplish something for the people who they claim to serve.

Charlie LeDuff is a columnist for The Detroit News and host of "The No BS News Hour." His column appears on Wednesdays.