Judiciary Mourns Loss of Ellen Abbott

January 12, 2021

The Tennessee Judiciary mourns the loss of Ellen Abbott, who served as the Director of the Office of Criminal Justice Services at the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Ms. Abbott played a vital role in the development and success of the state's recovery courts, including drug courts, Veterans courts, mental health courts, safe baby courts, and other specialty courts. She passed away unexpectedly on January 11, 2021, at the age of 56. 

"We know that this will come as a shock, and we know that our grief will only be surpassed by our memories of her determination, grit, get it done attitude, incredible laughter, and passion for creating restorative options for people in the criminal justice system. Her passing leaves a tremendous void in the TDMHSAS family and among the criminal justice advocates with whom she served." TDMHSAS Commissioner Marie Williams said in a letter. "Ellen was someone who had such great relationships with so many people. That's how she was able to have such an amazing impact on so many people, and that's also what makes this news so sad and devastating. Ellen was an innovator in her field, and her willingness to try new things is evidenced by the many and varied programs she led. Under Ellen's leadership, Tennessee's Recovery Courts, Criminal Justice Liaisons, Residential court programs, and other high impact initiatives grew by leaps and bounds to where they are today with availability in nearly every county. She was so excited for the opening of the new women's residential recovery court, and we know her legacy and impact will continue to be felt there and in programs across the state."

Ms. Abbott served in the TDMHSAS since 2006 and worked closely with many judges and court staff on creating problem-solving courts in nearly every Tennessee county.  

"The AOC joins in expressing our deepest sympathy to Ellen’s family, her colleagues at TDMHSAS and all those who have been touched by her deep compassion and support for the entire recovery community across our state," said AOC Director Deborah Taylor Tate. "Her lifetime of public service and deep belief in the resilience of the human spirit is a testament to all that one life truly can make a difference."

Ms. Abbott also played an essential role in both the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative and the Tennessee Judicial Opioid Initiative, now known as the Tennessee SMART Justice Network.

"Ellen Abbott was the single greatest champion in the State of Tennessee for resources and policies to equip justice stakeholders to meet hurting people where they are with interventions that provide hope and healing," said Judge Duane Slone, chair of RJOI and the TN SMART Justice Network. "She leaves a huge void in our state and in our hearts."

This story will be updated as more information becomes available. 

Remembrances & Condolences

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"I am thankful for Ellen's countless efforts and deep commitment to serving others and providing opportunities of healing, recovery, and new beginnings.  Her leadership and contributions are invaluable and immeasurable.  Our state has suffered a tremendous loss with Ellen's tragic passing.  Our hearts and prayers go out to her family, especially, during this time.  We hurt with them and for them."
- Stephanie Etheridge, Juvenile Court Manager/Statewide Judicial Safe Baby Court Coordinator 

"My deepest sympathy to the family of this energetic, professional and compassionate lady.  Ellen was innovative and always willing to accept a new challenge or program.  She will be missed and prayers are extended for her family and all of those who knew and loved her."
- Judge Michael E. Spitzer, Circuit Court Judge 21st Judicial District, Division V

"I am deeply saddened to hear of Ellen’s tragic passing.  Ellen was an inspiration to so many of us.  She was dedicated to finding innovative solutions to assist families across Tennessee struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.  I wish I had more time to work with and learn from her.  A truly remarkable woman’s life taken from us too soon."
- Stacy Lynch, Attorney/Magistrate Rutherford County Family Preservation Court

"Ellen was such an incredible person, and I will miss her dearly. Her passion for supporting and serving others was genuine and infectious. She was a motivating leader with the heart of a true public servant, and I am so grateful I had the chance to know her."
 - Rachel Harmon, AOC General Counsel

"My heart goes out to the Abbott family. Community providers like CADAS have lost a soldier in this important and urgent fight; an authority on substance abuse whose passion, joy and exuberance were unmatched.  But you have lost so much more. I can't imagine what today looks like for you all, but please know myself and the other staff at CADAS share in your grief and that each of you are in our thoughts and prayers."
- Paul Fuchcar, Executive Director, CADAS

"I couldn't believe it when I got the call of her tragic passing. Our hearts and prayers go out to her family. Her dedication to her position showed that it was obviously more than just a job. She was a pleasure to work with and will be greatly missed."
- Brad Bowie, Executive Director The Lighthouse/Safe Harbor

"Ellen showed the way for so many of us as she thoroughly investigated and created ways to provide services on  behalf of those with criminal involvement and substance abuse / mental health maladies.  Ellen really cleared the Path for all of us on both sides as givers and receivers with the services she established. Because of her undaunted determination the Path will be easier for us all to traverse. Although we will all miss her physical presence her Spirit will guide  her colleagues all over the State. She will be missed for a very long time."
- Jane Abraham and Staff, Healing Hearts Foundation

"I express my deepest sympathy for the loss of Ellen Abbott. Ellen was a champion in the field of Behavioral Health."
- Donnie D. Couch, Executive Director

"I am deeply saddened to hear the news of Ellen's death. She has been such a driving force in the treatment court arena. I heard her speak at a conference committee meeting about the Criminal Justice Liaison Program. I knew right then, that was a program I needed for my jurisdiction. She invited contact and was warmly responsive. She saw to it that I was assigned a CJL for 2 of my four counties. I figured I was just a name to her. But no! She sought me out at a subsequent judicial conference, quoted statistics about the referrals I had made, and encouraged me to keep up the good work. She managed much yet connected with people. Her dedication is admirable; her encouragement was motivating. She will be terribly missed."
- Sandra Donaghy, Criminal Court Judge - Tenth Judicial District

"I am deeply saddened to hear of Ellen's passing. My prayers are with her friends, family and TDMHSAS family. Her impact is immeasurable and she will be remembered as a person who worked tirelessly for others."
- Tina Mitchell, President-Executive Director, CrossBridge, Inc.

"I am saddened to have heard of Ellen’s passing. Reflecting on my first encounter with her, I was desiring direction on helping men that were in the judicial system to gain treatment, recovery and housing. I was unsure how to proceed or with whom to speak. Ellen stepped in quickly with direction, education and her readiness to get it done. Since that meeting, we were able to help many men get into housing and treatment. Ellen’s care, motivation and willingness to assist or lead the charge will forever be missed. I am forever grateful for her leadership in my life during a difficult and unsure journey. My prayers are now turned towards her family that the “Presence of The Lord” will provide them with Peace during this difficult time of loss."
- Pastor Ron Smith, Former Director of Recovery, Safe Harbor

"I appreciate all the work she did to ensure we providers had grants that could help our indigent population. Her family as well as her work family remain in my prayers."
- Lori Tubbs Douglas, Provider and Staff at Alternative Choice Counseling

"I'm deeply saddened by Ellen's unexpected passing. Ellen was one of the most amazing, helpful, funny, and dedicated people I've had the pleasure of knowing. She dedicated her life to serving the State of TN. Because of Ellen's tireless efforts, recovery court programs were established and succeeded throughout the State. She was vital in the development and implementation of other specialty court programs, including Safe Baby Courts. She was never too busy to answer a call, give advice, or solve a problem. The impact she made is immeasurable. May her legacy continue through the programs she created and the lives she helped. I am grateful to have worked with her."
- Michelle Consiglio-Young, Director and Counsel, Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, AOC.

"I consider myself very fortunate to have met and spent time with this very innovative woman. She was open to any idea that may benefit a person that most of society had turned their backs on. Prisons are full of these people and she saw the value of a different approach to help them learn how to return to society as whole happy people.  Her presence will be missed. Her open mindedness will be missed. A lot of knowledge and hope went with her. In this time of morning, bless her loved ones and just know she is another bright light in our hearts and she will not be forgotten. The men in our program will carry her vision on with them for the rest of their lives."
- Becky Nolan, Clinical Director MCRRC

"My heart aches and mourns the loss of Ellen.  I admired her and looked up to her in so many ways and I will never forget her laugh.  Ellen was passionate, caring innovative and solution minded.  Over the years I’ve been fortunate to know her, she challenged me and helped me grow in so many ways.

We worked on so many important projects.  Together with Judge Norman, Liz and many others, we traveled to East Tennessee, put the pieces of the puzzle together and in a few months (I still don’t know how), but we created Morgan County Residential Recovery Court.  With Ellen’s ongoing help, we have nurtured that program from a mustard seed into the the remarkable program of hope that it is today.  Ellen loved visiting, seeing the residents and especially enjoyed their homemade chocolate chip cookies.   They enjoyed packing her a few extras for the road when she would leave.

Ellen believed in others and she wanted people to have a chance and the tools to help them to change their lives.

She was over the moon about the evolution of the Women’s Residential Recovery Court.  We are going to do our best to make you proud, Ellen.

As much as my heart aches, my focus is praying for her family, the DMHSAS, her colleagues, peers and friends who also mourn her loss.  May God provide peace during this time.  Thank you Ellen for your service.  I am so thankful for everything you have done. Love, Jeri."
- Jeri Thomas, Executive Director/Nashville Recovery Court Support Foundation

"I was blessed to know Ellen Abbott for over seven years as we worked to open MCRRC.  Her boundless energy and unceasing optimism helped fuel a facility that has changed many lives.  Her intellect, her caring and her drive for excellence will be greatly missed.  But most of all I will miss her compassion and friendship.  Godspeed my friend."
- Jennie Lynn Jobe, Court Director, Morgan County Residential Recovery Court

"Your passion to help those in need will be forever honored and remembered. You are loved, appreciated and will be missed by thousands. I pray your family can eventually find comfort in the knowledge of the legacy you have left. I will miss you."
- Lisa Zacharias, Friend