'Children of Hope' Debuts on OETA

Norman veterinarian John Otto, who helped found the Friends for Folks dog-training program at Lexington Prison, looks on as Sarge gives trainer Bill Miller affection May 27, 2016, during a reunion visit. The program rehabilitates stray dogs into companion and therapy animals while providing an opportunity for prisoners to give back to society.

Children with incarcerated parents are often ostracized from society, but local veterinarian Dr. John Otto is working change that.

Through his most recent documentary "Children of Hope," Otto shows the trauma these children go through when their parents are incarcerated and how society can help.

Otto helped found the Friends for Folks dog-training program that allows prisoners to train dogs, which inspired him to co-produce three documentaries and co-write one children’s book titled, “Marvin’s Shooting Star,” about the impacts.

“[‘Children of Hope’] is probably the culmination of all of the work I have done,” Otto said. “The dog program is very important, but it’s brought me to the children.”

“Children of Hope” is Otto’s third documentary, which airs 7 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Saturday on OETA.

Otto teamed up with Oscar winning co-producer Grey Frederickson and Oklahoma City Community College, and they have worked on “Dogs of Lexington,” “Basset Tales” and “Children of Hope” for three years.

Otto describes the opening scene as a black screen with birds chirping, wind blowing, water splashing and then a sound of sirens that cuts through the peace; followed by heavy breathing and a heart pounding faster and faster. The black screen then flashes to adults being taken into custody.

“What I wanted to do was put the audience in the perspective of the child,” Otto said.

He said normally when sirens are heard people think help is on the way, but when a child whose parent has been incarcerated hears a siren there is only fear of their parent leaving.

Most children witness this scene happening, Otto said, and that very traumatic event is what he wanted to portray in his film: to not only show what these children endure, but to show how society can help them.

A statistic Otto included in the documentary is that there are five million children of incarcerated parents in the U.S. and three out of four of those children will end up incarcerated themselves.

According to the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, the number of children affected by parental incarceration is significant. The commission reports that, on any given day in Oklahoma, there are tens of thousands of children with an incarcerated parent, which only considers those in prisons and county jails.

A study from the Prison Policy Initiative last year revealed Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the United States. As of today there are 26,157 inmates incarcerated in Oklahoma with 730 jail transfers pending, according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

Otto said the trauma of losing a parent can impact children not only because their parent is gone, but because they are often placed with DHS or a grandparent. Some are lied to as well about the situation because it’s difficult to understand.

“Research shows children will do better if they know they’re not forgotten, and their parents love them,” said Cheri Fuller, executive director of the Oklahoma Messages Project in a press release. “No matter what they did, they’re still mommy and daddy.”

The film shows a variety of incarceration impacts from a 7-year-old girl to Barry Switzer and the struggles he faced as a child.

“To show that no matter how old, this trauma stays with them,” Otto said. “That’s why it’s important for us as a society to help these children out, because when they live with this trauma, especially in shame and quiet, it does bad things to them.”

Otto said mentoring and education are the way to help children with parental incarceration. Through mentoring the children can receive help coping, but with education they can find understanding.

“The number one deterrent of incarceration is education, out of all the things that there are education is the best,” Otto said.

Through the reading program Oklahoma Messages children are able to see a recording of their parents reading to them and they know they are okay. Reading can also help them open up and the same is true with their parents.

“If you can’t talk, if you can’t communicate then you can’t help,” Otto said. “So that’s what I’m trying to show in the movie is how can we help these children.”

After five rejections from other foundations, Otto said his film was funded by the Wertheimer Foundation through a $35,000 grant, which is more than the other two documentaries received combined.

Blossom Crews, director of Big Brothers Big Sisters, is hosting a free watch party 6:30 p.m. Thursday at her organization's Main Street location for the documentary debut. For reservations, call Crews at 405-364-3722.

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