An Escondido police sergeant recently pinned a badge on a newly graduated deputy he happened to save from a drug den 22 years ago. The two have since formed an unbreakable bond.
Sergeant Jeff Valdivia with the Escondido Police Department attended the graduation ceremony in Colorado Springs, where he reunited with Deputy Natalie Young, a new recruit with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
In 2000, Valdivia was fresh out of the police academy when he found Natalie, a 6-week-old baby at the time, in a drug house in South Escondido while arresting a parole violator. The sickly and underweight infant was lying beside her teenage mother and a methamphetamine pipe.
In horror at the filthy state of the house and the lack of food for the child, Valdivia decided to take her into protective custody. He was unaware of the importance of that decision until Natalie’s adoptive mother, Shelley Young, tracked him down through a records search and called him.
Valdivia learned from Shelley that Natalie was living a healthy and happy life and was about to graduate from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Academy in Colorado Springs. Shelley and her husband, Jeff, told Valdivia that his action to save her inspired her to become a law enforcement officer. They then asked if he would like to pin Natalie’s deputy badge on her at her graduation ceremony.
Valdivia was shocked by the news, and said he would be honored to attend the ceremony.
“It was an incredible high,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “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,” he continued. “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.”
Natalie said she decided to become a police officer when she was 8 years old, right after her parents told her of her rescue.
“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.”
Natalie’s story is one of beating the odds. When the Youngs decided to adopt through San Diego’s foster care program, they were told that all of the children eligible for adoption were “drug babies” and could suffer long-term health problems.
Six weeks after Valdivia submitted the paperwork for protective custody of Natalie, the foster parents received bad news. They were informed by the program that Natalie was three pounds below her birth weight, and her mother’s daily crystal meth habit had left the child with serious health problems.
“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 recalled. “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.”
Shelley said that Natalie struggled with asthma and bronchitis, as well as hearing, nerve and spinal problems. She also struggled in school early on and had attachment issues with her parents.
Despite this, Natalie overcame these challenges and began to get stronger, and even earned a black belt in tae kwon do. She said she began to thrive after the family moved to the more rural and laid-back setting of Colorado Springs.
“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.”
Natalie’s first job out of high school was working as security guard for a psychiatric facility. The experience gave her confidence that she could succeed in a law enforcement career.
“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,” Natalie stated.
Valdivia never expected the tragic story to have such a happy outcome.
“It’s so rare to ever find out what happens to the people we help,” the officer 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.”
It was an emotional day for Valdivia and Natalie, who were both struggling to hold back tears.
Since meeting, the two have forged a bond and are in constant communication over text. They even made plans for Natalie to visit Valdivia’s family in San Diego.
“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,” Valdivia 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.”