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Full Interview: NPR's Michele Norris Talks About Dooney Waters

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P.G. County police officer Alex Bailey (right) and his partner stand in the doorway of the Waters apartment just before Dooney left to go to school at about 7:30 a.m. in Prince George's County, Md. on September 3, 1989.
(Photo by Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
P.G. County police officer Alex Bailey (right) and his partner stand in the doorway of the Waters apartment just before Dooney left to go to school at about 7:30 a.m. in Prince George's County, Md. on September 3, 1989.

In September 1989, the crack cocaine epidemic was such a national problem that President George H.W. Bush talked about the impact of drugs on children in a nationally televised speech. In that speech, he reference a boy known as Dooney Waters.

"Not long ago, I read a newspaper story about a little boy named Dooney who, until recently, lived in a crack house in a suburb of Washington, D.C. In Dooney's neighborhood children don't flinch at the sound of gunfire. And when they play they pretend to sell to each other small white rocks that they call crack," he said.

NPR’s Michele Norris wrote that story. At the time she was a reporter for The Washington Post. She tells us how she came upon Dooney, what his experiences were as the child of a crack addict, and how he dealt with the challenges.

Michele Norris: My original goal was to write a story about Isabelle Field, who was Dooney Waters’ teacher. And I was spending time with her in her classroom. And there was one child in particular, that you just noticed him. He was just a really cute kid with a big personality. And one day we rode the bus home with him. And when we saw his community, we realized that the teachers were part of the story, but the real story is really to focus on the kids. They are the story and that was not a story that was not being well told when Washington was in the ravages of the crack cocaine epidemic.

Kavitha Cardoza: The details of his life were just heart-stopping. He draws a stick-figure of someone smoking a crack pipe. He describes how to cook crack to you. He was burned when his brother handed him a soft drink can that had been used to heat crack on the stove.

MN: He was right in the center of the action, and he was being raised by someone who just fell totally into the rabbit hole of addiction. He could describe how to make crack cocaine because he saw people cook up rocks in the kitchen. He saw people use cocaine on a regular basis — and if you talk to most six year-olds, they could describe the process for maybe, scrambling eggs. Or the kinds of things they see all the time. That was just his world.

KC: Dooney once said, “Drugs are why my mother don’t take care of me.” And you wrote about the drug, saying it had “obliterated” his mother’s maternal instinct. How did the children whose parents were addicts, how did they understand this world? Because three years earlier, he had a very — I would say — middle-class family.

MN: He had a total middle-class life. But three years earlier he was three years old. So, it was harder for his older brother, who understood the slide into addiction. Who remembered a parent who was much more attentive, who remembered a household that was filled with nice things. In some ways, Dooney was protected from that, because he was so young. And the parents had interesting ways of dealing with it also. They weren’t necessarily proud of where they found themselves. They were struggling with this also. They had a monkey on their back. Addy very much wanted to get on the other side of her addiction.

Addy, I should say, is Dooney’s mother. And you saw that—I mean one of the more touching moments is when she pulled out her photo album, and shared that with us. But there was something that was so deep in that, where she was pointing to these pictures where she was wearing nice clothes, and celebrating milestones, and basically saying, “That used to be me.”

KC: I interviewed several children of women who used to be addicts, and they talk about how school was often a refuge from the chaos at home. Some parents had children who overdosed, some disappeared for weeks. What were some of the pressures on the school system, and how did teachers cope with this? Because it wasn’t just this one child.

MN: No, there were — and this not just in D.C., it was not just in Prince George’s County — it was really all over the country. A lot of the schools that were most successful were just winging it. What do these children need and what do we do. And that was impressive to see. The best teachers — particularly the best teachers who are teaching in some of the most challenging circumstances — go well outside of the three Rs in the classroom, and meet the emotional needs of the children. Dooney’s teacher, Isabelle Fields, had a drawer in her desk. And it was always filled with staples, things that children might need. Sometimes children would come to school and they needed to change their shirt, a change of underwear. Or little cups of pudding, or applesauce. Deodorant, toothpaste. Those kinds of things.

She would send children home, if she knew that they were in a really bad situation, she might send them home with a little bit of food, because a lot of these children were on the free or reduced lunch program.

KC: At the end of one of the articles, Dooney says, “I don’t want to sell drugs, but I will probably have to.” Do you know where Dooney is now?

MN: I don’t. And I think of him often. And maybe it’s because of the changes that have taken place in the Washington area—I drive through some of the areas in D.C. and in Prince George’s County that used to house these big open-air drug markets, and they are completely gentrified now. The place that he lived is now right next to the football stadium where the Washington football team plays. So I’ve been thinking about him a lot. And I would love to know where he is now, what happened to his life. I think I just created an assignment for myself.

Kavitha Cardoza’s reporting is part of American Graduate — Let's Make It Happen!, a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


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