By Steve Pomper
Sgt. Jeff Valdivia and Deputy Natalie Young at Young’s Graduation Ceremony. (Photo) Escondido Police Department Facebook Page
A thought that occasionally crosses every cop’s mind is, “I wonder whatever happened to___?”
Officers will fill in the blank with all sorts of suspects, witnesses, and victims—but most especially child victims. I remember responding to all kinds of calls where I still wonder today, decades later, what happened to them.
The calls almost always involved alcohol, drug, and/or child abuse. Occasionally, I’d be stunned when I’d handle a call with what I called “borderline parents” who didn’t overtly abuse or neglect their kids. But their perpetually dependent-on-government mentality might still destine their kids to less than what they may have become under better circumstances.
Those situations also showed me the strength and uniqueness of individual human beings. I recall this 10-year-old girl who was more “adult” than her parents. Everything about her apartment (government housing) and her parents were just “okay,” flirting with “not okay” but not quite there.
I still wonder, from time to time, what happened to that little girl. She spoke well, was polite, had that innate spark of intelligence, and was genuinely nice. I choose to believe she rose above her compromised condition and grew up to be a happy, successful, fulfilled person.
It sparked my memory when I read a recent story from a couple decades ago about a California cop who rescued one of these children from a home that was not okay. That cop said he’s also wondered over the years what ever happened to that child. He hoped, as I did, that she’d grown up to have a healthy and happy life.
The difference with that officer’s situation is… he just learned what happened to the child. And it is a spectacular story. The kind of story that could make an entire career in law enforcement worthwhile.
Cops don’t always know if their decisions will make a positive difference in someone’s life. They hope so, but things can go in so many different directions once they’re out of the picture. Also, after an officer makes that decision, most often, he or she will never know what came of it.
In November 2000, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune, Officer Jeff Valdivia of the Escondido (CA) Police Department (EPD) responded to a parole violation that turned into an all-to-familiar call where he found himself in a trashed apartment occupied by a meth-head mother and her six-week-old malnourished, neglected, and “sickly” daughter.
The officer used his authority to place the child in protective custody. He said it was the first time he’d ever had to call in child protective services. And with this one act by a police officer, this baby’s chances for a better life just increased a thousand-fold. But, with the twists and turns in any large government “system,” her success, even her survival, was by no means guaranteed.
After that call, Officer Valdivia’s career as a cop continued, but he occasionally wondered what happened to that little girl.
Valdivia didn’t know this, but early reports about the baby’s survival were grim. Though the state had found parents who’d been waiting to adopt a baby, they said she was in bad shape. They told the potential adoptive parents the baby, who became Natalie, hadn’t been fed well after birth and was “three pounds below her birth weight.”
Child services officials warned the Jeff and Shelley Youngs that Natalie would likely have to visit doctors for the rest of her life because of her birth mother’s drug use. Shelley said, “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.’”
Devoted Christians, they didn’t choose the baby; God had chosen her for them. The Youngs accepted the challenge despite Natalie experiencing significant physical and mental health issues. With some difficulty, Natalie grew, dealing with her problems. But after moving to Colorado from California at six years old, with loving parents and perseverance, “Natalie… began to thrive,” and she eventually overcame her challenges.
Then, about seven weeks ago, Sgt. Valdivia learned what happened to that emaciated baby he’d rescued from such dire circumstances. His actions led to Shelley and Jeff adopting Natalie. And then, 22 years later, Shelley, who worked as a dispatcher at a Sheriff’s Office, did some research and found that Sgt. Valdivia still working for the EPD.
Shelley told the sergeant the baby he’d rescued all those years ago “had grown up to become a healthy 22-year-old woman….” Then she added a special request for Sgt. Valdivia. She asked him if he would like to fly to Colorado to pin Natalie’s El Paso County Sheriff’s Office badge on her at her Sheriff’s Academy graduation.
Natalie was about to graduate from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Academy in Colorado Springs. Natalie’s adoptive mom and dad wanted Sgt. Valdivia to know that his saving Natalie’s life by taking her into protective custody had motivated her to become a cop.
Like I said earlier, the veteran officer said that in his 26 years on the job, he’d never had something like this come full circle. He said, as an officer, you do what you can, then “it’s out of your hands.”
According to BizPac Review, Natalie said, “‘My mom sat me down…she was like, I found the officer that saved your life,’ Young told 10News. ‘When I tell you, I couldn’t even speak. He’s coming to my graduation? [My mom] said, ‘he’s going to pin the badge on you!’”
Escondido Police Department Facebook Page
Deputy Young said, during the swearing-in ceremony, “The whole time I was holding back tears at graduation. I couldn’t stop smiling.”
Sgt. Valdivia said, “‘Personally, I feel blessed just to have found out what happened to her,’ he said, flashing back to their first meeting. ‘She was underweight…and of course, the house was a mess. Just being invited to her graduation was a huge honor but being asked to pin her badge on was definitely a career highlight for me. You can just tell she cares about people. She’s gonna make a great cop.’”
Sgt. Valdivia talked about how rare it is for cops to “find out what happens to the people we help.” He said he’d run into the baby’s birth mother and think about how her baby was doing. He never thought he’d find out.
He said, “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 sergeant also refused to take all the credit. He praised other officers at the scene and the foster care system that took care of Natalie before the Youngs could take her. Modest, as most cops are, he said he “did a little bit of paperwork. Jeff and Shelley Young saved her life.”
While that’s true, Sgt. Valdivia shouldn’t downplay how important his decision was to Natalie’s survival and ultimate success. Now, she wants to go on to maybe save a life like Sgt. Valdivia saved hers.
I’ll let Natalie close the story in her own words. “I told them [her parents], ‘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.”
Yes, Natalie—oh, excuse me, Deputy Young, that would be “crazy”—in the best kind of way.