Updated: Nov 9, 2020
By Aidan's mom, Mitzie
Minot, North Dakota
I have spent most of my life in North Dakota and always felt it was a relatively safe place to raise children. I grew up on a farm where my family provided a comfortable, safe life. At this time last year, I was a 41-year-old married mother of two with an excellent job in my chosen field. Now, I am a mother of one living child and one deceased child--everything has changed.
This is our story:
My son, Aidan, was born in 1995 with a full head of dark hair. As the only young grandchild who lived near my parents and family, he grew up surrounded by love and attention. His life had bumps along the way, most of which were created by us adults. His dad and I divorced when he was about two years old. He lived with me but had a lot of visitation time with his dad.
When he was about twelve, Aidan went to live with his dad in Bismarck and started playing JV football. He had loads of friends and got along easily with everyone. He came back to live with me when he was sixteen.
Like any teenager, Aidan pushed the boundaries. He bought a pick-up truck the second he got his driver’s license and would haul around as many of his friends as could fit. Around that time we started to argue more and he began having trouble in school. Many nights he wouldn’t come home, but he always had an excuse—he fell asleep on a friend’s couch, for example. His absences increased at home and at school. I had to report him as a runaway to the police too many times to count. Meanwhile, some of his friends parents would hide him and cover for him.
Aidan came under the supervision of the juvenile criminal justice system when he was caught using a stolen credit card. For a period of time he wore an ankle monitor and seemed able to comply with the rules until he had the opportunity to break them. During this time, Aidan was referred to the Child and Adolescent Partial Hospitalization (CAPH) program through our local hospital. The program was set up during school hours and included group counseling, individual therapy, and schoolwork. I also worked with Aidan in family therapy and in-home counseling. He adhered to the schedule and completed the program. Looking back, I can see how he manipulated his way through it, but I doubted myself at the time.
Aidan was a fantastic liar. Principals, counselors, and many others got caught in his web. While under court supervision, he took random drug tests and would frequently test positive for benzodiazepines, amphetamines, and marijuana. I think I believed that his substance use wasn’t all that serious because they were all prescriptions and I knew a lot of kids experimented with them. At least he wasn’t using bath salts or cocaine or heroin.
One of the times Aidan ran away, the police picked him up and held him. I received Aidan’s wallet, which contained small squares of aluminum foil. I went straight to the internet and later told the court officer about them and my suspicion about their being used for marijuana. I realize now that the officer had to have known that they were being used for heroin. I wish the officer had said, “Wake up mom. If your kid isn’t using heroin by now, he will be soon.”
Aidan was caught in the act of yet another crime; theft, I believe, but it is hard to keep track. Prior to that, he had done things I could not prove: stolen all of my valuable jewelry, taken a bottle of amphetamines prescribed to me, broken the window out of my vehicle the night before Mother’s Day to steal change and cigarettes, stolen my parent’s car when they were on vacation and busted a door to get alcohol.
When he was finally placed in juvenile detention I was scared to death for him and visited him the once a week I was allowed. It was hard to see him in the orange jumpsuit behind glass. But he was stubborn and would not admit that it bothered him, with the exception of being bored. I think he’d finally found a place where his charm didn’t work.
While Aidan was inside, my youngest son found a backpack of his that contained insulin syringes in it (stolen from me for my type 1 diabetes), dozens of quart size baggies, and a spoon. The officer who came to take the backpack said, “I’m surprised there isn’t a scale here.” Somehow, I remained in denial. I thought, “Oh, he must have the spoon and syringes for friends or to help out the people he’s selling to.” Even writing that down makes me wonder how I could have been so naïve. But as parents we’re not taught to spot the signs of drug use and no one ever said to me, “Your son is using and selling dangerous drugs. You need to get him more help and watch for the signs. Educate yourself and do what you can.” All that time I thought he was just a troubled kid who dabbled in drugs and fell in with the wrong crowd, which explained the stealing.
When Aidan’s court day came his attorney asked if I would be willing to allow Aidan to come home and live with me if he was released on probation. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done to stand in front of my son and say, “No, you can’t come home.”
Aidan was placed in a Youth Correction Center in Mandan, ND. I went to see him a number of times. Leaning over a table that was bolted to the floor, I tried to connect with Aidan and understand what he was going through. On one visit, he told me he was smarter than most of the other criminals because it took him so long to get caught. He was smart, but in retrospect I think that his intelligence and his sociability/likeability were a detriment to him. He was smart enough to get away with doing really dumb, sometimes criminal, things and manipulative enough to get off the hook.
Eventually, Aidan was placed at Prairie Learning Center in Raleigh, ND where he spent about six months. All reports from his primary counselor were positive. Like everywhere else Aidan had been, he got along with everybody. Prior to finishing the program, we had a family session. In the morning, Aidan was furious with me and barely agreed to have lunch. In the afternoon, everything seemed to have changed. Aidan had softened and appeared less resentful. It felt odd to me but I questioned my instincts. The day ended well and only when I was driving the 2 ½ hours home did I have the sinking feeling that, once again, Aidan had done what he needed to in order to beat the system. Soon after, Aidan graduated from the program.
He lived in Minot with whoever was willing to let him stay on their couch. He got a job and said he was going to go back to school. He asked for money frequently but I didn’t think much of it; most kids his age don’t handle money well. And, just maybe, it was comforting to believe he wasn’t selling drugs.
In the middle of June 2015, Aidan was caught on a surveillance camera using a stolen credit card in Bismarck. His dad saw it on the Police Department’s Facebook page and contacted Aidan and me. Aidan and his dad made an appointment to visit with a detective about the situation but right before the appointment, Aidan disappeared for a stint.
I talked to my son by text on June 25, 2015. On July 4, my husband and I were asleep when someone started pounding on the door. Dennis went to answer and I heard someone asking if he was related to Aidan Vanderhoef. I had gotten my robe on and was headed towards the living room when I heard the officer say, “I’m sorry to inform you he was found dead.” Aidan was 19 years old.
I was more calm than I could have ever imagined I would be.
Yes, I was in shock, but all the trials of the previous years had been steeling me for this in some way. I started making calls. First to Aidan’s dad. Then my sisters. My husband and I were on our way to my dad’s house to deliver the news when the investigator from the sheriff’s department called and said that from initial appearances Aidan had died of an accidental OxyContin overdose. There was a shoelace around his arm and a spoon near his body. He was found in the basement of a home. The people who were with him admitted they had been using and would test positive for OxyContin.
Aidan’s body was taken to the State Medical Examiner’s office for an autopsy and I met with a funeral planner. I had to go and buy clothing for my son to be buried in and flowers for his casket. It was five full days from the time I learned of his death before I could view his body in the funeral home. I don’t believe I have ever touched anything so cold.
In the end, it was determined that Aidan died of a heroin overdose with methamphetamine in his system. The state has struggled to prosecute those with him when he died. His death was not quick, and no one called 9-1-1 until after he was dead.
The same weekend my son died, my cousin’s son’s girlfriend died of a meth overdose in Williston. In October a friend lost her 23-year-old daughter to meth. Within the last couple of weeks, some close friends of mine lost their cousin to an overdose in Williston. A friend’s daughter in Williston is struggling with an addiction to meth. My family has lost three members due to drug overdoses. My sister, JoAnn, died in 2002 at the age of 42 from a benzodiazepine and opioid overdose. Her daughter, Aubrey died in 2009 at the age of 31 from a cocktail of drugs used to treat her mental illness. JoAnn’s other two children have struggled with drug addiction and are now in recovery.
This is not a moral failing, it is a disease.
This has to stop. The only thing that our war on drugs seems to have changed is how many people have lost their lives to addiction. We need options aside from incarceration for people who are struggling; we need treatment, compassion, education, and funding. We have to stop the demand because we cannot stop the supply. My heart is broken irrevocably. I cannot get my son back but I hope I can help save another family from this horrible reality.