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Judge rules against mother of murdered children in new custody case

CHICAGO -- A judge ruled Friday that a mother convicted in connection with the drowning of her three children is an abusive and neglectful parent, a major defeat in her legal battle for her new family.

Amanda Hamm was convicted of child endangerment in the 2003 deaths, while her then-boyfriend was convicted of first-degree murder.

Now remarried, Amanda Ware has three more children. They were removed by authorities last year after a doctor recognized her as the former Hamm.

In arguing that Amanda and Leo Ware should regain custody of their children, their attorneys said in a hearing last week that there is no evidence the couple hurt the kids.

But Judge Demetrios Kottaras rejected that argument Friday.

"It has been argued that the Ware children look fine," the Cook County judge said. "We do not have to wait for the injuries."

The judge also noted Amanda Ware's mental illness and history of drug abuse. He said she hadn't kept up with mental health treatment.

Further hearings will be held to decide if the two boys and a girl - who range in age from 1½ to 5 - should become wards of the court.

Their mother served five years in prison for watching her then-boyfriend carry out a plot to drown her 6-year-old, 3-year-old and 23-month-old children because they interfered with the couple's relationship and his sex-and-drugs lifestyle. He's serving a life sentence.

Prosecutors have previously described how the three children, trapped in the back seat of their mother's car, screamed for help before they drowned in 4½ feet of water in an Illinois lake while their mother and her boyfriend escaped unharmed.

Amanda Ware had the three other children after leaving prison.

Bruce Boyer, director of the Loyola University child law clinic in Chicago, who's not involved in the case, said it posed multiple challenges.

"What's so difficult is that the likelihood of something going wrong may be low, but if it does, the consequences are so high," he said before Friday's ruling.

Under a legal concept called "anticipatory neglect," a court is not required to wait until a child is harmed before intervening if someone has harmed or endangered a child in the past, Boyer said, adding that such findings aren't unusual in child welfare cases. On the other hand, parents cannot be disqualified for custody solely because of their past if they prove that they're a capable parent.

But prosecutors and child protection authorities told Judge Kottaras last week that, although none of the three living children has been physically harmed, there is direct evidence of current abuse and neglect. They said that includes domestic violence by Leo Ware against his wife and others, substance abuse and Amanda Ware's failure to follow treatment for mental illness, which created an injurious environment for the children.

In 2012, Chicago police responded to a domestic abuse call at the Ware's house after Leo Ware struck his wife, according to a transcript of last week's hearing. The next year, while she was pregnant, Amanda Ware sought an order of protection, saying she feared for herself and her children because Leo Ware was using crack cocaine and might become violent. Two weeks later, she had the order dropped.

Combined with the parents' histories, "this freight train of evidence is bearing down on three current children who must be protected," Assistant State's Attorney Joan Pernecke told the judge, according to the hearing transcript.

Attorneys for Amanda Ware, 39, and Leo Ware, 49, said the children showed no signs of abuse and were healthy, even crying and taking off their shoes and socks to try to prevent child protection workers from taking them from their home last year. They also said no problems had ever been reported to the state Department of Children and Family Services until a doctor at a hospital where Ware gave birth recognized her.

Amanda Ware has a long history of depression and abusing drugs and alcohol, and 20 years ago told a mental health worker that she wanted to kill herself by driving into a lake, prosecutors said. During her 2006 trial, witnesses said she was abused and manipulated by boyfriend Maurice LaGrone Jr., who also terrorized her children - none of them his - including by putting one child's head in an oven and chasing a child with a knife. While LaGrone couldn't keep a job - and didn't want to watch the children while their mother worked - she bought him expensive clothes and jewelry, according to testimony.

When the couple wanted to move from Clinton, Illinois, to St. Louis, Ware asked her mother to take custody of two of the children, but she said she could take only one.

Months later, the couple drove to nearby Clinton Lake, about 150 miles south of Chicago, where on Sept. 2, 2003, LaGrone drove the 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass down a boat ramp, at some point jumping out with Ware.

Both claimed the deaths were an accident and that they tried but could not get the kids out. Rescuers eventually called to the scene by the children's mother said it took just two minutes to remove the bodies.

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