One Washington woman’s dedication to making a difference

Published 6:00 am Saturday, March 25, 2023

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By Clark Curtis for the Washington Daily News

Editors Note: During Women’s History Month, Clark Curtis will be taking a look at some of the women, past and present, whose stories and lives have contributed in some way to the deep and rich history of Washington. 

Barbara Gaskins was born and raised in Greenville, NC, but now calls Washington home after moving here ten years ago. At the age of 40 she has dedicated a good portion of her life to criminal justice reform. “I was charged with a misdemeanor at 17,” said Gaskins. “So on a personal basis I have experienced the collateral consequences of being charged, and do so to this day.”

Gaskins also lost her god brother due to a Fentanyl overdose. “When he got out of jail we could get him a birth certificate, but we couldn’t get him an ID because he didn’t have a social security card,” says Gaskins. “And we couldn’t get him a social security card because he had no ID. It is like a revolving door of collateral consequences. He couldn’t become a tax paying citizen because we couldn’t get all of the pertinent information needed.”

As Gaskins points out when others such as her god-brother get out on probation, there are fees to be paid to the state. And when they have no source of income they have an inability to pay child support, and have limited ability, depending on the felony, to obtain healthcare, food stamps, a job, or even housing. “When your back is against the wall you go back to what you know,” said Gaskins. “And in the case of my god-brother it was using and selling drugs. I still feel the sting of having that misdemeanor and the loss of my god brother, to this day.”

These early life experiences have driven Gaskins to make a difference for others in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and criminal justice reform. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Science, a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice, and is two credits shy of a Master’s degree in Special Education with a certification in emotional behavior disorders and response to intervention. “My heart goes out to all,” said Gaskins. “There is no race or socio-economic barrier when it comes to mental health, substance abuse, and criminal justice reform. The problems and the need for help impact us all.”

Gaskins has held several positions in the mental health field trying to help those with co-occurring disorders. In 2011 she began tracking and understanding the need for criminal justice reform, and started Treatment for Accountability for Safe Communities (TSAC). “I saw what was and was not working within the criminal justice system,” said Gaskins. “I have written a few books about criminal justice reform to help formerly incarcerated individuals navigate the system. The North Carolina Department of Public Safety is using two of my workbooks as part of is reentry program and training.”

In 2020, Gaskins organized the Reentry Council for Beaufort County, which had to be shut down at the time due to COVID. “I’ve reached out to city council once again with the plan of resurrecting the reentry council,” said Gaskins. “It is a multifaceted approach for dealing with reform as its root core. It would provide training and a better understanding of the issues that people face upon their release. It would also create a model for mapping how each individuals’ lives intersect the criminal justice system, determine what is or is not working, and identify the resources needed to address the problems. ”

Gaskins has also had discussions with Beaufort County Sheriff Scott Hammonds, who has expressed interest in learning more about helping those who have been released from the system. She also has provided risk needs assessment and reentry planning for Pitt County.

But it does not stop there. Gaskins founded the nonprofit North Carolina Community Outreach and Wellness Center with the ultimate mission and goal of assisting disenfranchised individuals with the eight dimensions of wellness which include, emotional, physical, occupational, intellectual, financial, social, environmental, and spiritual well being. “We have no limits as to who we serve,” said Gaskins. “It includes all marginalized communities including our veterans. We have been training individuals who have lived the experience so that they can give back to the communities that they have hurt and serve as mentors to others.We want to make a world of difference for others.” 

Most recently the North Carolina Community Outreach and Wellness Center received a Project Safe Neighborhoods grant from the US Department of Justice. It will allow them to look at gun violence under the lens of a public health disparity for people of color in both Beaufort and Pitt counties.

Gaskins does not shy away from the importance of the work that she and others have embarked upon. “We all see the stats from the criminal justice system and ultimately we need to be prepared to deal with the thousands of people who are released,” said Gaskins. “We have to start building a community that helps to decrease repeat offenders, increases public safety, and affords the formerly incarcerated the opportunities to once again become tax paying citizens. As a community, you are only as strong as your weakest link.”

In the end, Gaskins said hopefully she can serve as a role model for others.“I was just a little Black girl from Greenvilles’ west side,” said Gaskins. “And based on the statistics, I was not supposed to make it. But I overcame the odds with the support of my family and others. I was even a candidate for the US House District 3 seat in 2022. You don’t have to be what society tells you are supposed to be. You can step up and step out and make a difference. You too can be a role model for others.”