Calif. police recruit pinned by officer who saved her life 22 years ago
In 2000, the officer found a 6-week-old baby in a drug den and got her to safety, inspiring her to become a woman in blue
By Pam Kragen
The San Diego Union-Tribune
ESCONDIDO, Calif. — On Nov. 2, 2000, Escondido police officer Jeff Valdivia was called in to help with the arrest of a parole violator at a known drug house in south Escondido.
That was routine duty for young officers like Valdivia, who was in his mid-20s and just four years out of the police academy. But what he found inside the house would haunt his thoughts for decades. Inside one room, he found a dangerously underweight and sickly 6-week-old baby girl, along with her teenage mother and a used methamphetamine pipe. The mom admitted the pipe was hers and she showed physical signs of having recently used the drug. The house was also filthy and there was no more than six ounces of baby food 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. So, with the support of his fellow officers and a juvenile detective, Valdivia decided to file the paperwork that would forever change the life trajectory of the baby who became Natalie Young. But he never knew how important that decision was until six weeks ago.
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 said that from the time she was old enough to ask her parents where she came from, they told her the story of her rescue by a police officer. 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."
A slim chance of 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 the news was grim.
Shelley said they were told that Natalie was born to a mother who was a daily crystal meth user. The baby had barely been fed after her birth and by 6 weeks of age she was three pounds below her birth weight. 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 says in the Bible to help the widows and orphans, so we were all in. We said we'd take her, but it was beyond challenging."
In her early years, Natalie battled asthma and bronchitis and had challenges with her hearing, nerves and spine. She also had some early attachment issues with her parents and she struggled sometimes in school, Shelley said. But over time, Natalie's health improved, she became very strong, eventually earning a black belt in tae kwon do.
Natalie was 6 years old in 2007 when her family left San Diego for Colorado Springs, in search of more affordable housing and the small-town life, with good schools, plenty of churches, horses to ride and lots of pine trees. In Colorado, Natalie gradually began to thrive. She showed strengths in writing, in art and an innate skill in communicating 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 would do anything. I never wanted to let my problems stop me."
After high school, Natalie got an apartment and paid her bills working as a security guard in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. The experience strengthened her confidence and solidified her resolve to go into law enforcement. "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."
Meanwhile, as Natalie was growing up in Colorado, Valdivia was working his way up in the Escondido Police Department. From time to time, the baby he took into custody in 2000 crossed his mind.
"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."
The dream of a lifetime
From an early age, Natalie said she would ask her parents if they could help her find the officer who had rescued 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. She graduated and has been working for the department as a dispatcher ever since. It was through her work with the Sheriff's department in August that she finally found Valdivia. She called the records department at the Escondido Police Department and asked records technician Sandra Ferrer if it was possible to find the case file from Nov. 2, 2000. 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."
Shelley kept the news a secret from Natalie until a few weeks before her graduation. Then, as soon as she got the news, Natalie called Valdivia and they talked for an hour, during which Valdivia told Natalie it would be the honor of his life to attend her graduation and pin on her badge. At the ceremony, both of them had a hard time holding back tears.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling. My cheeks were sore from smiling so much," Natalie said. "I felt so proud that day. Nothing in the world could bring me down. I knew I was doing right."
In the weeks since, Valdivia and Natalie have been exchanging friendly texts. He has been offering her advice on books to read and ways to avoid burnout 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.
Since graduating, Natalie is now working 12-hour shifts in the El Paso County jail. Eventually, she will move out on to the streets as a working 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. There were other police officers at the scene that day and a foster care system that cared for Natalie until the Youngs took her in.
"It's an incredible feeling to know I'm part of her past. But I made a decision and did a little bit of 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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