Dooney Waters and his father sat giggling in front of a Saturday morning cartoon when a commercial cut in, warning against the evils of drugs.
"Look, Daddy, that's what drugs do to your brain," Dooney said, pointing to a televised image of an egg sizzling in a frying pan. "You better not be doing drugs -- or that will happen to you."
Dooney's father, who asked not to be identified, stared at the television for a few moments before turning to his son with tears in his eyes. "Don't worry, kid," he said, "I'm afraid of what you would do to me if I did."
Dooney -- the 7-year-old whose experiences growing up in what police described as a crack house were chronicled in The Washington Post last summer -- has become a watchdog of sorts for his parents. He questions his mother and father about their success in drug treatment, writes them encouraging notes or draws pictures when they complain of rough times. The adults in Dooney's life describe him as a study in strength, a child who is determined to make sure he and his family win their battle to steer clear of drugs.
"Sometimes I think the roles have changed," said Dooney's mother, Addie Lorraine Waters, who once described herself as a "slave to cocaine."
"He acts like he's the parent sometimes. He's always asking if I'm staying clean. He knows he don't want to go back to our old life."
Dooney, a child whose moods were once a pendulum of temper tantrums and introverted silences, appears more stable, more ebullient in the eight months since he left his apartment in Washington Heights, a federally subsidized complex that houses one of Prince George's County's most active drug markets. Dooney and his 14-year-old brother, Frank Russell West, now stay in Glenarden with a woman who asked to be identified only as "Aunt Earlene," until his parents complete their drug treatment programs.
Often denied food while living in the crack den, Dooney's frame has blossomed from a size 6 to a husky size 10. His teachers at Greenbelt Center Elementary School say his grades have improved significantly, noting that the marks for discipline in his grade book have been replaced by stars for achievement. And the same little boy who once said, "I don't want to sell drugs, but I'll probably have to," said in a recent school assignment that he wants to be a doctor or teacher when he grows up.
But there are still rough patches; times when Dooney hides his toys when his mother comes to visit because he remembers when she used to trade his playthings for crack; nights where he wakes up crying because he misses his parents, who are living in separate halfway houses as part of their drug treatment.
"It's going to be hard for him to forget all that he has saw," Dooney's father said. "We haven't been the best parents for him, but we are trying. As long as we pray and we all keep on trying we're going to make it."