Jeff Valdivia from Escondido was called to assist in the arrest of a parole breaker at a well-known drug house in south Escondido on November 2, 2000.
For young officers, such as Valdivia in his twenties and only four years removed from the police academy, this was routine duty. The horrors he discovered in the house would haunt him for years. One room contained a six-week-old, dangerously overweight, and sickly baby girl. It also contained her teenage mother, and a pipe containing methamphetamine. The mom said the pipe belonged her, and she was showing physical signs that she had used the drug recently. The house was also filthy with six ounces of baby food left in the kitchen.
Valdivia had never taken a child into protective custody before, but he feared that if he left the baby with her mother that day, she wouldn’t have survived. With the help of his colleagues and a juvenile detective Valdivia filed the paperwork that would forever alter the life of Natalie Young. Six weeks ago, Valdivia didn’t know how important this decision was.
That’s when Valdivia — now the sergeant for Escondido Police’s community-oriented COPPS division — got a call out of the blue from Natalie’s adoptive mother Shelley Young, who had recently tracked him down through a records search. She told him that Natalie had grown up to become a healthy and happy 22-year-old woman who was about to graduate from the El Paso County Sheriff’s academy in their hometown of Colorado Springs. Shelley and her husband, Jeff Young, wanted Valdivia to know that his decision to save her had inspired their daughter to become an officer, and they wondered if he would fly out to pin on Natalie’s deputy badge at her graduation ceremony on Sept. 23.
Valdivia was stunned by the news and said it was the first time in his 26-year career that he’d had the opportunity to see the long-term results of his work.
“It was an incredible high,” he said. “You make the best decision you can, you hope you wrote a good report and you hope the system is going to work. From there on, it’s out of your hands.
“You hope for the best, but it’s something you just accept. On this one time where you do get to find out, it’s incredible to know that it worked out, and that this time this little girl grew up in a loving home with amazing parents and you got to be a little part of that,” he said.
Natalie stated that her parents told her about her rescue by a policeman when she was old enough for her to ask them where she came from. By the time she was 8 years old, she knew she wanted to follow in this unknown officer’s footsteps someday.
“I grew up knowing that police officers were there to help and do good, and I knew I wanted to be in law enforcement so I could help people the way he helped me,” she said. “It changed my whole life and I wanted to change other people’s lives in the same way.”
Very slim chance of good health
Shelley and Jeff Young already had a naturally born 5-year-old daughter, but when they realized they couldn’t have a second child they decided to go the adoption route in 2000. After a plan to adopt a baby from China fell through, the couple — then living in La Mesa — signed up for foster-to-adopt classes through San Diego County’s foster care program. County officials warned them that all of the young children who would be eligible for adoption through the program would be “drug babies,” born to addicted mothers with potentially lifelong health issues.
On Dec. 19, 2000 — just six weeks after Valdivia had filed the paperwork to have baby Natalie put into foster care — the Youngs got the call they’d been waiting for. But it was grim news.
Shelley claimed that Natalie was the daughter of a crystal meth addict mother. After her birth, the baby was barely fed and she was already three times her birth weight by six weeks. The drugs had also caused Natalie serious health problems, so the Youngs were told to prepare for a lifetime of doctor’s visits.
“They said ‘we have a baby for you but she is very sick from head to toe. It’s hard to look at her and she will always be very disabled,’ ” Shelley said. “It was rough. But we’re strong believers. It is written in the Bible that you should help widows and orphans. We all agreed to this. We said we’d take her, but it was beyond challenging.”
Natalie struggled with asthma and bronchitis in her early years. She also had difficulties hearing, nerves, and her spine. Shelley explained that she also struggled in school due to her attachment problems with her parents. But over time, Natalie’s health improved, she became very strong, eventually earning a black belt in tae kwon do.
Natalie was 6 years of age in 2007, when her family moved from San Diego to Colorado Springs. They wanted more affordable housing and small-town living. Natalie began to flourish in Colorado. Natalie was a strong writer, artist and a natural communicator with animals.
“I had problems as a baby that I had to work through,” Natalie said. “I did all the sports I wanted to do. I was flexible and willing to do whatever it took. I never wanted to let my problems stop me.”
Natalie, a graduate of high school, got an apartment. Natalie also paid her bills by working as a security officer in a local hospital’s mental ward. It gave her confidence, and made her determined to become a law enforcer. “When I worked in the psych unit, talking to people and de-escalating them was one of the big things we had to do. It came very easy for me to talk to people without making them feel they were doing something wrong, no matter what they were in for.”
Valdivia worked his way up at the Escondido Police Department while Natalie was growing-up in Colorado. The baby he took in custody in 2000 crossed his thoughts from time to time.
“It’s so rare to ever find out what happens to the people we help,” Valdivia said. “I’ve been doing this 26 years now and it doesn’t happen. Over the years I’d run into the birth mom and wonder what happened to the baby. But I never expected a reality where I’d ever find out. For police officers, the only time we find out a result of something is what happens to a criminal, not the people we help.”
A lifetime’s dream
Natalie told her parents from a young age that she would seek out the officer who had saved her. They didn’t know his name, but they promised to help her look for him when she was older. After she turned 18 and began taking community college classes to prepare for the sheriff’s academy, she started asking her parents again.
“I told them ‘wouldn’t it be crazy if we could figure out who the cop was who saved my life and tell him how much he impacted my life, and how I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him?’ And then I could thank him and tell him I’m doing good,” Natalie said.
Inspired by her daughter’s passion for law enforcement, Shelley Young enrolled in the El Paso County sheriff’s academy herself about five years ago. Since then, she has been a dispatcher for the department. It was through her work with the Sheriff’s department in August that she finally found Valdivia. Sandra Ferrer, Escondido Police Department records technician, called her to ask if she could locate the Nov. 2, 2000 case file. Intrigued and moved by Natalie’s backstory, Ferrer was able to retrieve the record from a digital database and she immediately tracked down Valdivia with the news.
“Sandra approaches me in the hallway with a report in her hand and said, ‘do you remember this?’ I see the name of the birth mother and I said, ‘yeah, I remember this case really well,’” Valdivia said. “Then she said, ‘well, that little girl was adopted and I’ve been talking to her adoptive mom and she’s about to graduate from a sheriff’s academy.”
Natalie was not told the news by Shelley until just a few weeks prior to her graduation. Natalie received the news and called Valdivia. They spoke for over an hour. Valdivia informed Natalie that it was the honor of her life to attend her graduation. He also pinned her badge. Both of them struggled to hold back their tears during the ceremony.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling. My cheeks were sore from smiling so much,” Natalie said. “I felt so proud that day. I was unable to be down. I knew I was doing right.”
Valdivia & Natalie have been exchanging texts in the weeks that followed. He has offered his advice to her on books to read, and how to avoid burning out on the job. They’ve also discussed plans for her to come out for a visit to meet his family. Both say they’re now bonded for life.
Natalie started working 12-hour shifts in El Paso County jail after graduating. She plans to eventually move on the streets as a patrol officer. She’s not sure what type of policing she’ll do in the long run but she knows she wants a job where she can interact with the public and hopefully save a few lives someday, like Valdivia saved hers.
But Valdivia said he doesn’t deserve all the credit. Other police officers were present on the scene, and Natalie was cared for by foster care until the Youngs took the Youngs in.
“It’s an incredible feeling to know I’m part of her past. But I made a choice and did some paperwork. Jeff and Shelley Young saved her life,” he said. “As far as knowing that she wanted to be a police officer and anything we did inspired her, it just validates an entire career. It was all worth it.”
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