Tracy is a thirteen-year-old, Caucasian female, who is being raised by her mother, Melanie in Los Angeles. Also living in the home is Tracy's older brother Mason, who is fifteen. Tracy's parents are divorced, with Melanie as custodial parent. Tracy is in regular contact by telephone with her father, Travis, who is now remarried with a new baby. Travis is employed with a decent salary but has suffered periods of unemployment in the past; Melanie is a high-school dropout who receives child support but otherwise makes a basic subsistence income as a hairdresser for children and women, operating out of her own home. She is a recovering alcoholic who attends weekly A.A. meetings, but most of her social circle is from the recovery movement. For example, Melanie's boyfriend Brady, who is about ten years younger than Melanie but still substantially older than the children, also regularly stays at the Freelands' home overnight. Brady, who is a drug abuser and has been in and out of halfway houses, has an uneasy relationship with Tracy at best.
Tracy was referred to us by the social workers at Portola Middle School in Los Angeles, where she is in the seventh grade. Her mother Melanie had been disturbed by the behavioral changes that had manifested themselves in her daughter over the past four months, since the start of the school year. Melanie recalled her description to Travis over the phone of the behavioral changes in Tracy: "It's different this time -- she's starting to scare me." The changes in Tracy began after her return to Portola at the end of the summer, and at first seemed related merely to a desire to "fit in": Melanie's limited budget means that Tracy's clothing is typically bought used at thrift shops and flea markets, and Tracy's initial social anxiety seemed related to her clothing.
But the real difficulty began with Tracy's friendship with Evie. Evie is also in the seventh grade at Portola, and is in foster care with foster mother Brooke. Tracy's brother Mason, who is older but also a student in the same school system, described Evie as "the hottest girl at Portola." It is clear that Evie is sexually very advanced for her age: she reports physical and sexual abuse in childhood from an uncle, who "put things inside me" and "pushed me into a fire." After initially mocking Tracy about her clothing, Evie eventually befriended Tracy, and enticed Tracy into a host of antisocial behaviors. Evie would shoplift, which led Tracy to steal a woman's wallet in an attempt to impress her new friend. Evie encouraged Tracy to get her tongue pierced, then explained how to hide it from her mother.
Evie would also introduce Tracy to substance abuse, encouraging her to try alcohol, marijuana, snorting crushed pharmaceuticals and inhaling "whippets" (nitrous oxide). These sessions would turn disturbing when Tracy and Evie, impressed with the anaesthetic properties of the whippets, took turns hitting each other in the face, drawing blood. Tracy's friendship with Evie was close, and to a certain degree erotic -- the girls would engage in tongue-kissing with each other, and would join up in performing a joint lesbian seduction act for Luke, a friend of Tracy's brother in his early 20s, and attempting (at Evie's instigation) to entice him into a menage a trois. (Luke rejected the offer as being quite obviously illegal.) Once Melanie discovered the tongue- and navel-piercings which Tracy had managed to hide from her, she called Travis and asked him to take custody of Tracy. Travis came over to talk to the girl, but was unable to take her -- a fact Tracy found both predictable and depressing on her father's part.
In this time period, Tracy's academic performance at Portola plummeted. Meanwhile Tracy's relationship with Evie progressed to a point where it was clear that Evie's design was to convince Melanie to remove her from foster care, and allow her to live in the home. Melanie initially agreed but eventually met with Evie's foster mother and returned the girl. This prompted a serious rupture in the friendship, in which Evie publicly humiliated Tracy at school, and then spread rumors about Tracy which led to students threatening violence against Tracy. However, Evie's stash of drugs was discovered by Brooke, and Evie claimed it belonged to Tracy. Brooke then informed Melanie, leading her to discover the stolen cash which Tracy has. Brooke and Melanie confronted the two girls, and Evie managed to blame all of the antisocial behavior on Tracy.
It was during this confrontation that the final fact which led Tracy to be referred to the social workers at Portola emerged. Before even the friendship with Evie started, Tracy had been engaged in self-cutting behavior, which she managed to hide from parents, teachers, and friends by wearing long sleeved clothing. She would utilize sterile sharp objects ranging from medical scissors to razor blades. Tracy's mother and brother were unaware of the self-cutting, however Evie was aware, although Tracy never discussed it with her. Tracy was thereafter referred to social workers and school psychologists at Portola, who then referred her case to us, so that we could address the question of how theoretical approaches in social work practice might be used to interpret her situation.
The previous summary of Catherine Hardwicke's film "Thirteen" gives some sense of what is at stake in the life of thirteen-year-old Tracy Freeland. But from the standpoint of a social worker, it is useful to examine the details of Tracy's situation and attempt to interpret them by means of various theories. I would like to examine Tracy's case more closely through the lens provided by different theoretical approaches. First, I will examine Tracy according to general systems theory, then according to the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud in their classical and contemporary manifestations, and finally (from the alternative theories which have only emerged quite recently) according to feminist standpoint theory. I will conclude by evaluating the usefulness of these theories themselves, both as a tool for understanding Tracy and more generally.
Using general systems theory to approach Tracy's case is mostly a matter of common sense -- general systems theory is less of a procrustean theoretical bed for which case studies must be cut to fit, but is instead a useful tool for conceptual analysis. Greene (2008) notes that the origins of general systems theory came initially from the biological sciences, and thus is different from other theories under consideration because "its highly abstract set of assumptions or rules can be applied to many fields of study to understand systemic change" -- Greene additionally observes that the originators of general systems theory think that it is "not a theory at all, but a working hypothesis, the main function of which is to provide a theoretical model for explaining, predicting, and controlling phenomena" (Greene 165). Social systems theory is readily applicable to Tracy's case: it merely asks us to conceive of Tracy as a part of an organic social system whose interrelated members constitute a single sort of unit, like a family. The system is defined by its "limits" -- the boundaries which define it, or which indicate its membership. Without this there is no way of attaining what Schriver (2010) calls "familiness," the sense that there is an existent and working system in place there which constitutes the family (303).
So in the case of Tracy's family it is important to realize that to a certain extent there are members of it who lie beyond those boundaries. Brady is not really a member of Tracy's family, certainly not in Tracy's eyes: he is not married to her mother, and his past transgressions are traumatic enough to Tracy that she inadvertently flashes back to visualizing it. The fact that Melanie forgave Brady for his drug abuse and welcomed him back into her home and her bed may be one reason why Tracy should elect to make drug use part of her acting-out behavior. Evie may supply her with the means, but the motive could very well be a means of expressing Tracy's real feelings about her mother's relationship with Brady. Tracy will, in fact, verbalize certain feelings to her mother about the relationship, but then it is mostly as a way of upbraiding her mother for her failure to cope (financially and emotionally) when Brady's drug abuse removed him from her home and placed him in the halfway house: "When Brady went to the halfway house, what happened to our phone? Our cable? You couldn't even pay the bills." In the context of the larger argument which Tracy and Melanie are having when this admission is made -- which is a confrontation about Tracy's drug use and theft -- this might be mistaken for mere defensive lashing out. But it is clear that Brady's presence troubles Tracy very much indeed -- she is openly hostile to him, inquiring about the halfway house with no euphemism, and as a way…