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Finley: Freezing deaths indict system

It wasn't a crack in the system that Monica Cannady and her family fell through. It was a huge, gaping crevice in our ability to protect the mentally ill from themselves.

Cannady and two of her children plunged into that gap on the frigid night of Jan. 13, freezing to death as they slept in a Pontiac field. They had only sweatshirts and bed sheets to protect them from temperatures that dipped into the 20s. A third child, a 10-year-old daughter, woke up and ran to a neighboring home to report her mom and brothers were dead.

The struggling mother was not like so many of the homeless who succumb to the elements, unseen and forgotten.

Help was within her grasp. But she was unable to accept it. And there was no way to force it on her.

A detailed account from the Oakland County Sheriff's Office of the hours leading up to the tragedy shows numerous efforts to rescue Cannady, by both deputies and family members. She refused assistance and left places where she and her children would have been safe. She repeatedly walked away from those who could have saved her and her sons.

Nearly everyone who encountered her knew something was wrong, and that her coatless family was ill-prepared to face the cold. But because Cannady was lucid and non-threatening, officers were uncertain how to respond, beyond begging her to go with them to a shelter or to at least take the coats they offered.

"Had she been in an obvious mental health crisis, it might have triggered a different response," says Oakland Sheriff Michael Bouchard. "If they had known to connect the dots, it could have been totally different."

The horrific tragedy of the Cannady family is an indictment of a system that has placed cops on the front line of the mental health crisis and turned jails into de facto treatment centers for the tormented and addicted.

Bouchard, moved by the deaths, is calling for more social workers, addiction specialists and mental health professionals to be imbedded in police departments to respond to situations such as the one officers faced when they encountered Cannady.

The sheriff estimates more than 40% of county jail inmates are on medication for mental ailments.

Cops should not be the first responders for incidents involving the mentally ill. Mental illness is not a crime, it's a medical issue and should be handled by specifically trained professionals.

Deputies sensed Cannady was in trouble. They tracked her movements, at one point deploying a drone to find the family. But they felt powerless to help her.

"A lot of my people are struggling with this," says Bouchard of the impact the deaths have had on his department.

It wasn't the deputies who failed. It was, as Bouchard says, "a societal systemic failure to support a population in crisis. Hopefully this tragedy will lead to change."

If the horror of two little boys huddled against their mother as the cold slowly stole away their lives doesn't spark a crusade for change, what will?

Michigan must separate its law enforcement and mental health systems to ensure that cops are dealing with criminals and therapists are dealing with the mentally ill.

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN

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