By all appearance, Morgan Mayo has the typical life of a high school senior: she was on the cheerleading team at Forsyth Central High School in the fall, is on the varsity soccer team this spring, takes Advanced Placement classes and is getting ready for senior prom and college.
But those who know Mayo know there’s a little more to her story.
Up until last December, Mayo had been living in a group foster home while spending up to five days a week with local residents Lacey and Scott Jernigan and their twin toddler daughters, Bethany and Lana.
Lacey first met Mayo about two years ago in a high school small group she hosted at Browns Bridge Church. Mayo came and went over her sophomore and junior years, especially at a time when she was living in Cobb County; driving an hour for church wasn’t a high priority, Mayo said.
Last summer, Mayo attended a five-day youth retreat and an off-the-cuff remark ended up changing her life.
“I mentioned abuse that was happening in my [then-] current foster home,” Mayo said. “It was a complete mistake. I didn’t mean to say anything … but it just kind of slipped my mouth, and, of course, Lacey and them caught it, and I didn’t realize I had said it. I also didn’t realize she had reiterated the question again later on … she asked me if it was true or not, and I said yes.”
That evening, Lacey Jernigan contacted the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS), and let Mayo know the next morning, which was also the last day of the retreat.
“I’m pretty sure I fell apart. I just started crying,” Mayo said. “I knew what it meant: I knew I was being taken because that was the third allegation against that family.”
Mayo said there was a rash of emotions that evening. She was mad at Jernigan for getting in touch with her DFCS worker and foster mom, who told her she wasn’t going to be coming back the next day, and spending the night “in my bed crying until we left the next day.”
“By the time she got home, essentially, her caseworker had already been to that home,” Lacey Jernigan said. “She essentially went straight to a group home, she never went back, and she’s been in the system long enough that she knew that meant she wasn’t going home, and really that’s when Scott and I stepped in.”
Her junior year, Mayo was attending North Cobb High School, after previously going to both North and South Forsyth high schools, and she knew leaving the foster family meant she would have to leave the life she had made in Cobb County.
Once moving to a local group home, the Jernigans got permission to start picking her up for church on Sundays over the summer. Eventually, they got permission to start having her over for dinner.
“I literally just started having dreams and waking up at night worried about her and thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to her?’” Lacey said. “The big thing is she turned 18 in October, and when you turn 18 in the system, you can sign yourself out.”
Lacey said the family never saw themselves being foster parents, but that changed when she got to know Mayo.
“Foster care was never really on our radar to do,” Lacey said. “We were never like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s do this one day.’ We kept thinking, ‘Oh, the people that do that are superhero people; that’s not us, though,’ especially, with the twins. But we knew her and knowing a kid in the system rather than just knowing about them is very different.”
But Lacey wasn’t sure how to bring it up to her husband, especially with two young children already in the home, but said “it just felt like The Lord saying, ‘You’re not done being in her life.’”
After a couple of times picking her up and dropping her off, Scott had similar thoughts.
“Scott, essentially was like, ‘This is ridiculous. I feel like we’re having to drop her at the airport, saying this awful goodbye every single time. What do we need to do to get her?’” Lacey said. “I just lost it in that moment because I knew he was wanting to take her in and I wanted to do that, so that’s where it became like, ‘OK, are we actually going to do this? Are we thinking about taking in a teenager?’”
After some time to go through the process, Mayo found out at a Forsyth County Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, Christmas party that she was going to live with the Jernigans.
Morgan Mayo, a senior at Forsyth Central High School, center, recently moved out of a foster group home to live with Lacey and Scott Jernigan and their twin toddler daughters, Bethany and Lana. The family hopes their story inspires others to foster older kids in the system. - photo by Ben Hendren
“It doesn’t take long to be around Morgan to see she’s got this amazing personality and is so loving. She’s such a sweet girl, and just needed a little help,” Scott said. “Morgan is super special. Lacey and I, we’re not remarkable; there’s nothing really special about us. We love her and just wanted to be there and support her. She just needed a little stability to be able to get through high school so she could go to college.”
While she was ecstatic to find out, Mayo admitted there were some complicated feelings with leaving the home, where she had made friends and, after living in several foster homes, knew she wouldn’t be taken away from.
“It was actually kind of hard to leave the group home, which sounds really dumb, like, you wouldn’t think I’d be sad to leave it, but everybody made it sound so much worse than it actually seemed,” Mayo said.
Since moving in, both the Jernigans and Mayo said they were surprised just how well things worked out.
“It was weird how easy it was. We didn’t expect that. We knew it was going to be crazy, and ‘How can we do this? We’re already busy,’’’ Lacey said.
“It just seemed like it would be harder than it was,” Mayo said. “I was already with them every weekend. It just felt like that but every day.”
Since then, the family has spoken with fostering groups and those interested in taking in foster children and have had a particular interest in encouraging people to take in teens.
“What we’ve really learned is they are so afraid of the teens and are like, ‘Oh, they’re addicted to drugs or they harm themselves,’ but they don’t place those kids,” Lacey said. “There is a need for teens to be taken in, and everyone is so afraid that they’re going to be massive delinquents or something like that when they’re normal kids; they just don’t have a home.”
The Jernigans said they were able to expedite the process by going through Fostering Together, a consulting company, which they said works faster than DFCS and provides support for foster children and foster families.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without them as fast as we did,” Lacey said.
They still face some preconceived notions about fostering and who is taken in, including recently at an organization that gives free memberships to those in the foster system. When the family went, officials assumed it was for the toddlers rather than Mayo.
“It just shows the stigma of people taking younger kids, when there is a huge need for older kids,” Lacey Jernigan said.
Mayo said she has been in the system for about five years and stays involved with mentoring other kids who are still in the group home.
“The older you get, you understand better than the younger ones do,” she said. “Younger kids, you’ll see it, it really does happen, they try to act bad and stuff and get kicked out of the home because they think if they get kicked out of the home, they’ll go home. That’s not how it works logically, and I knew that because when I went to my first foster home, I had that mindset.”
For those considering adopting teens, Mayo said there is a big need at a critical time in those kids’ lives and gave some troubling statistics, such as only 20 percent of foster children going to college, which Lacey said showed Mayo was beating the odds.
“There’s teenagers too, it’s not just babies,” Mayo said. “No offense to babies, but take us first, we’re literally about to leave. We’re leaving in like three years, babies still have [many] years to go … I just feel like we’re a lot closer to aging out.”