Impacting the Public’s Perception

At the request of Supervising Judge Martha A. Mills and Commissioner Hon. Debra Walker, in the spring of 2010, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism sponsored a unique professionalism program at the Circuit Court of Cook County’s Expedited Child Support Division.  Approximately six months later, in order to ascertain the value of the program for possible replication in other divisions of the Circuit Court of Cook County or in other courts across the State, Commission staff conducted interviews of program participants.  Despite the program taking up two hours on a beautiful Friday afternoon in April, the overwhelming sentiment expressed was positive. This is a summary of the program and the six month evaluation.

In order to develop an engaging professionalism program tailored to the Expedited Child Support Division, Commissioners and staff conducted interviews and observed operations in the Division, learning some of the challenges to professionalism from the viewpoints of the judges, hearing officers, state’s attorneys, and other individuals working in this high volume Division.  Cook County’s Expedited Child Support Division is a specialty court tasked primarily with paternity determinations and the establishment or modification of child support. Hearing officers, who are attorneys, preside over support cases involving Illinois Healthcare and Family Services (HFS), where benefits paid by the state on behalf of the custodial parent may be recoverable against the noncustodial parent.  Where both parents agree, the hearing officers issue orders, and these orders are signed by the judges of the court. The judges additionally hear cases where the parties are not in agreement, as well as all other paternity and child support matters not involving HFS, along with a range of other domestic issues including custody, visitation, jurisdictional issues, orders for protection, and contempt. The court handles a heavy caseload in its nine hearing rooms and five courtrooms, and the staff includes judges, hearing officers, clerks, state’s attorneys, and customer service personnel.

The work of the court is fast-paced, high-volume, and often stressful. The working spaces are crowded.  These conditions, combined with the fact that the staff tends to be compartmentalized around their functional assignments, led to interest by the court’s administrators in the Commission on Professionalism conducting a program on civility and professionalism.

The program took two hours on a Friday afternoon in April.  A plenary session of approximately 80 individuals gathered in the largest courtroom to view a hypothetical hearing dramatized by court staff who had been re-assigned a role different than their own for purposes of the exercise. For example, a hearing officer was given the role of a court clerk and a state’s attorney was assigned the role of a respondent.  The roles were assigned as a way to keep the participants engaged in the process of considering the perspectives of their colleagues and the parties involved in the daily work of the division. The script was crafted to highlight a number of issues based upon complaints and observations from the day-to-day work of the court and was designed to help court staff appreciate the need for greater civility and professionalism in interactions with each other and the public.  After the hearing scenario was acted out by the participants, the staff was broken up into small groups to discuss the issues presented by the scenario from the perspective of their assigned (rather than actual) roles. These small group discussions were professionally facilitated by Commissioners, including Hon. Debra Walker and Gwen Rowan, and Commission staff Jayne Reardon and Donna Crawford. The small groups then reconvened as a large group to debrief and share insights.

During the full group sessions, Executive Director Jayne Reardon and other speakers stressed the theme that whatever their individual responsibilities, those working at the court shared the common and laudatory goal of administering justice annually for hundreds of thousands of parents and families who look to the court system for fairness in their lives, many of which are otherwise beset with great uncertainty and turmoil.  Participants shared ways to keep the goal in mind and to better serve the public, and the suggestions were recorded on large charts posted on the wall.  They were asked to identify at least one thing they learned that afternoon that would change their behavior at work the next week.

Six months after the program occurred, participants were interviewed about their recollections of the scenario, what they learned, and, most importantly, what lasting impacts they saw as a result of the training. A number of key points were made by those interviewed:

  1. Sharing perspectives has resulted in better collaboration. Staff indicated that there were barriers to communication and interaction among the different staff groups, resulting in a lack of understanding about the job responsibilities of one another. The seminar helped to improve communication and connections among the staff by helping them to see each other’s roles more clearly, and a greater level of cooperation and smoother workflow has resulted. Though the communications challenges were internal and not generally seen by the public, improved collaboration and workflow benefits the public by making the hearing process more expeditious.
  1. Professionalism has greatly improved. The relative segregation of the staff also had the effect of causing staff to grow overly comfortable with their roles and less sensitive to external needs, resulting in a relaxed attitude about professionalism. A number of examples were cited by interviewees, from disruptive conversations by staff in the hallways outside of courtrooms, lax attire standards, and, most significantly, a failure to fully appreciate the perspective of the litigants involved in the court system and their needs in the process. The seminar held up a mirror for the staff to allow them to appreciate their professionalism shortcomings and to help them see areas in need of improvement. The participants indicated that they are more mindful of the way they not only treat their colleagues, but also in the way they interact with the public. The litigants passing through the court are there often due to negative, emotionally-charged circumstances—in short, they are not happy to be at the child support court. Court staff better appreciate this and an observed improvement in the way the attorneys, judges, and court staff deal with the public was cited by all who were interviewed.
  1. An interactive, skit-based scenario with small group discussion was very effective. All of those interviewed clearly remembered the structure of the scenario, and all indicated that the interactive nature of the scenario was far more engaging and effective than the standard, “talking head”-type trainings that they often experienced. 
  1.  Suggestions for future applications were very helpful.  Interviewees suggested a couple of areas where increased communication may help set the stage for positive reception of the skit and small group discussion format.  First, they indicated that a potential negative of the otherwise very effective skit-type scenario was the fact that some of the actors, in adopting roles different from their own, acted out their roles in an exaggerated manner that might be interpreted as offensive from the perspective of those actually in those job roles. It was noted that some individuals left with hurt feelings afterward.  Regarding the small group discussions, some participants mentioned that including the judges who have authority over staff had an initial stifling effect on the free expression of complaints or negative observations by staff.  However, several interviewees also noted that as the conversation developed, the presence of the judges and other supervisors did not seem to affect the frankness of the discussion and, in fact, helped fuel a productive exchange of ideas.  (It is our conclusion at the Commission that including individuals from all parts of the facility was a critical aspect of generating inclusive, productive, forward-thinking dialogue that sparked behavioral changes that will result in a more professional and positive experience for those who come to court, whether as litigants, attorneys, service people or volunteers.)

Most significantly, the only negative comment received about the program was that it was too short!  All interviewees suggested that the court staff would benefit from ongoing, periodic seminars on professionalism as a way to continue keeping these important issues at the forefront of the staff’s minds, which is particularly important where staff turnover is as regular as it is at the court.

The Commission on Professionalism views programs such as this central to its purpose of promoting civility and professionalism in the legal and judicial systems and looks forward to the possibility of collaborating with other courts, or divisions of courts, to sponsor similar programs in the future.

The author gratefully acknowledges the leadership and guidance of Judge Martha A. Mills and the contributions of Commissioners Hon. Debra Walker and Gwendolyn Rowan for the development of the scenario and organization and presentation of the program and of Jason Vail who conducted the post-program interviews, compiled the evaluations, and edited this article. 

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