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The "We Care" Standard – Clerk of Court for the Prince George’s County Circuit Court


Gerry Mobley, Assistant Chief Deputy Clerk, says that Sydney Harrison, Clerk of the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County, “brought the compassion we needed,” when he began his term on December 1, 2014. Through employee investment and technology, Clerk Harrison’s team has transformed operations by implementing what he calls the “We Care” standard.

At its core, the phrase “We Care” represents the empathy and compassion every member of Clerk Harrison’s 208-person team embodies, and the turnaround in child support collections stands out as a model other courts can incorporate as their own. 

Sydney Harrison

Sydney Harrison

“Every case represents a child,” Clerk Harrison said of how his office manages child support collections, and he pauses.  “This next part gives me chills.  We have customers come back after we have helped them, with tears in their eyes.  There was once when a lady said to me, ‘Because of what you did, I can buy my kids shoes.’” 

In a candid moment, Clerk Harrison reveals that he was adopted in this court. “If it wasn’t for someone filing my parents’ paperwork correctly,” he pauses, “I would have been taken out of their home.  This courthouse delivered me a family.”

Clerk Harrison describes his biological background as Italian and African American, with both of his parents Caucasian and the way things were in the seventies as a time when adoptive parents in Maryland could have their children taken by the state if it was deemed better for culture identification.

Clerk Harrison set the groundwork for his team’s performance in the first six months of his term, and at the time there was a backlog of 3,500 child support cases, and the office was eight months behind in its work.

“We share a bond from those early days,” Clerk Harrison said while nodding to his team.  He is quick to defer credit to the members of his team, who, in turn, are humble and mission-oriented, emboldened by the respect, trust, and confidence they receive to help people navigate the rough waters that bring them to the courts. 

“Clerks are the heartbeat of our court,” Clerk Harrison said, “and our team is truly a representation of the Judiciary.  Our clerks love what they do.  They are committed and dedicated to helping all people who enter the court.  We understand that people can be vulnerable, and everyone needs help sometimes.  If one person needs help, we give it, and we know down the road they will be better equipped to help someone else.”

Now, the Prince George’s County Clerk’s Office ranks first in the state in child support collections top 10 in the U.S., processing 97.6 percent of active cases within 48 hours, with most handled within 24 hours.  Thousands of pieces of mail once now number less than 30.

The progress we are making, says Bonita Rabalais, Chief Deputy Clerk, comes by working closely with Administrative Judge Sheila Tillerson Adams to connect the Clerk’s Office with the overall operations of the Court.  “Openness, transparency, inclusiveness, and believing in people are characteristics that bring us closer to the work we all do as a court,” she says.

Having worked for the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County as a Civil Assistant in the Clerk's Office, Harrison intuitively understood how to reach the team he now leads.  He reorganized staff according to individual strengths and changed the culture. 

“When we interviewed candidates during our reorganization, our leadership team worked closely and placed our focus on hiring people with great character.  The rest can be taught.”  Clerk Harrison’s office serves 960,000 people in Prince George’s County, which translates to about 300,000 filings per year.

Early on, in 2014 and into 2015, employees were asked what they needed to be successful, and investment quickly followed.  Harrison says investment and technology are two over-arching principles that make his “We Care” standard work.  Clerk Harrison described, “First, we invested in our people.  We appreciate that people are different.  We focus on encouragement and engagement.  We find people’s strengths and put them in the right places to give their best.”

Personal development and professional development are essential to show people you care.  In the past, clerks were identified by employee numbers.  “This was dehumanizing,” Clerk Harrison said.  “We bought everyone nameplates to show them we value them as people, and we learned that once people knew each other, they worked for each other.”

Tiffany Brunson, the Clerk’s Office’s on-site Training Coordinator, leads training and seeks to develop “the whole person, not just the work.  We learn to listen mindfully and communicate thoughtfully to the people who come to our courts and the colleagues we depend on that support. We care.  Now, how do we bring that to life and deliver excellent customer service?”

Two examples demonstrate this point.  The first, as told by Brenda Fitzgerald, who is Senior Supervisor of Court Operations, as progress was made to improve child support collections, Clerk Harrison frequently “came down and said, ‘What number are we at?’ and this became a mantra,” because he added energy to the personal interaction of shaking hands, sharing hugs, knowing peoples’ first names, their children’s names, their dogs’ names, and their favorite sports teams(of which he playfully points out to Brenda that one of this year’s Super Bowl teams, Brenda’s favorite team, is a cheat). 

The second example regards to an employee recognition program where only a portion of employees could receive awards, but all the employees showed up early that day to take part in the drawing and everyone cheered and was genuinely happy for their colleagues who won.  Clerk Harrison adds, “We celebrate the moment and the achievement, and that brings us closer together.”

Clerk of Court Sydney Harrison and staff in front of We Care poster

Adrian Marshall, a Judiciary Clerk for seven years, said, “We build each other up. I love this office.” In December 2014, there were 48 vacant positions and low morale. Today, all but four positions are filled.

If training is like glue, investing in technology is like rocket fuel to get people from point A to points B through Z.  “We automated inside our office,” Clerk Harrison said.  “Files are scanned for better efficiency.”  Now, if a customer needs a document, from the moment the Court first receives it, that document is scanned and accurately categorized for immediate processing and retrieval.  Technology has enabled better communication by easing and simplifying the process. 

External engagement is a key component of the ongoing success of child support collections, as well.  Roxanne Young, Assistant Chief Deputy Clerk, explains how the office has found ways to connect with justice partners.  “We strengthened our relationships.  We toured their facilities and have quarterly meetings.  We put faces to the names we know, and we grew to understand how our different technologies, timelines, and processes can work toward shared goals.” 

Looking ahead, Clerk Harrison notes that his team is not yet perfect and still growing, but making progress together.  He points to having on-site training as crucial to the success of his team and believes the hallmarks of strong leadership, trust, empathy, being kind, and impacting lives can translate across courts. 

“We set goals, gave the right tools, and if we fell short, we assessed and rebuilt.  As a result, turnover is low.  We have four open positions.  People are staying.”

 

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(05/08/2017)