When Jenny was sick with strep throat around Christmas last year, nothing made her feel better except a DVD she’d received from her mom, who was incarcerated at the time.
From her sickbed on the couch, Jenny followed along with the video and watched as her mom read her a book.
The video made Jenny feel better, said Cheri Fuller, executive director of Redeeming the Family, a nonprofit that provides support to children in Oklahoma whose parents are incarcerated.
“Over and over, we hear children say it felt like my mother was in the room,” Fuller said.
Jenny (not her real name) is one of an estimated 7,071 children whose mothers are currently incarcerated in Oklahoma prisons, according to the state Department of Corrections annual report for fiscal year 2012. Oklahoma incarcerates 121 women per 100,000 people, compared with the national average, which is 65.
Redeeming the Family officials say research has shown that when a child’s parent is incarcerated, the child is more likely to become depressed or suicidal and is more likely to perform poorly in school or be arrested.
The nonprofit aims to change that cycle through the Oklahoma Messages Program, which brings volunteers into prisons to film mothers and fathers talking to their children and reading them a book.
According to the program’s most recent survey results, designed by Fuller and University of Oklahoma professor David McLeod, the videos are changing children’s outcomes and outlooks.
According to the outcome survey, 81 percent of children experienced moderate to huge increases in sadness and depression after their parent was incarcerated, and 84 percent experienced a moderate to huge increase in stress and anxiety.
After viewing the DVDs, 65 percent of children said their sadness and depression decreased, and 54 percent had less anger and acted out less, according to the survey.
Bridging a gap
When parents are incarcerated, sometimes these videos are they only way they can communicate with their children, aside from letters, because of financial restraints or distance, Fuller said.
Of the children who lived with their mother before her incarceration, 55 percent have never visited their mother while she was in prison, according to the 2012 annual report. About 40 percent haven’t spoken with their mother by telephone while she’s been in prison.
Since the Oklahoma Messages Program started almost four years ago, the group has sent DVDs to more than 3,000 children. Last year, the group sent DVDs to 823 children, Fuller said.
“To the kids, this is time spent with the parent,” Fuller said.
The group sends DVDs to children three times a year — Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Fuller said.
In October, the group will be changing its approach to coincide with the release of a new children’s book, “Marvin’s Shining Star,” Fuller said. The book tells the story of Marvin, who is in prison. His life is changed after he trains a black Labrador named Star through a prison program.
Each parent who sends home a DVD for Christmas will read the book, and the children will receive a gift-wrapped copy of the book and a stuffed black lab, Fuller said.
In addition to the videos, Redeeming the Family recently partnered with Oklahoma City University professors Joe Meinhart and Nicole Warenheim, as well as Bob Spinks, head of OCU’s master’s program in nonprofit leadership, to put on an Outdoor Adventure Day for children who are affected by incarceration.
The event was at John Nichols Scout Ranch and included a water gun fight, inflatables and a cookout to distract the children from troubles they may have because their parents are incarcerated.
“It’s just this special day for them to get to be out,” Fuller said.
At a glance
How to help
To donate, go to redeemingthefamily.org or send money to Redeeming the Family, The Messages Project, P.O. Box 8073, Edmond, OK 73083.
Making a difference
After a parent was arrested or
After watched a DVD from their parent:
Source: Oklahoma Message Project
2013-14 outcome survey
Over and over, we hear children say it felt like my mother was in the room.”executive director of Redeeming the Family