Woman convicted of watching kids drown awaits decision on custody of her post-prison children

Crosses stand as a memorial next to Clinton Lake, Illinois, December 11, 2003 © John Gress JG
An Illinois woman, who was convicted of child endangerment for helping her former boyfriend drown her three young children in a lake, has been released from prison and is now waiting for a judge to decide if she will regain custody of her three new ones.

Amanda Hamm, 39, served five years in prison for her part in the deaths of her 6-year-old, 3-year-old, and 23-month-old children, who drowned when she and her boyfriend, Maurice LaGrone Jr., drove a car into about 4-feet of water in Clinton, Illinois. LaGrone and Hamm – now Amanda Ware – exited the car before allowing it to slide into Clinton Lake on September 3, 2003. Hamm said LaGrone, who is serving a life sentence in prison for first-degree murder, abused and manipulated her, all while intimidating the children, none which were his.

On Friday, a Cook County judge will determine whether Ware and her current husband, Leo Ware, 49, will regain custody of their three chidden – ages 5, 3, and 1 1/2 – who were all born after Mrs. Ware was released from prison. The children were taken away by child protection officials last year after a doctor realized Ware was the former Amanda Hamm.

"This is a scary problem for all the people involved ... but most of all for the judge who has to decide whether to send these children home," Bruce Boyer, director of the Loyola University child law clinic, told the AP. "What's so difficult is that the likelihood of something going wrong may be low, but if does, the consequences are so high."

Judge Demetrius Kottaras’ decision will hinge on the question of “anticipatory neglect,” which does not require a court to hesitate in intervening with a child’s custody in cases when a parent or guardian has endangered a child in the past, according to the Associated Press. Yet parents cannot lose custody solely for past behavior.

Prosecutors involved in the case told Kottaras last week that, though none of the three children show signs of physical harm, there is evidence of abuse and neglect, including a 2012 domestic violence incident during which Leo Ware struck Amanda, as well as substance abuse, and Mrs. Ware’s refusal to follow treatment plans for mental illness. In 2013, Amanda sought an order of protection, claiming Leo was abusing crack cocaine and potentially violent. The order was dropped two weeks later.

The couple's past adds to "this freight train of evidence [that] is bearing down on three current children who must be protected," Assistant State's Attorney Joan Pernecke told the judge last week.

Attorneys for the Wares said the children had not been harmed, were healthy, and were very upset when child protection workers took them from their home last year. No complaints about how the children were being treated were made until a doctor reported Mrs. Ware to the state Department of Children and Family Services upon recognizing that she was the former Amanda Hamm.

Amanda Ware, who has a history of depression and substance abuse, recently told the Bloomington Pantagraph that, while she understands the lack of public sympathy for her plight, she wants the chance to rebuild her life.

"I felt like I could move on, that people I know have accepted me for who I am today," she said. "What happened in 2003 is something I'll never get over, but I have to try to move forward and having a home, a husband and a family is the biggest part of that."

Amanda Hamm © Hamdout JG

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Leo Ware, who has said his gang and drug activities are in his past, told AP that he and Amanda are being treated unfairly.

"They want to compare me to Maurice LaGrone, but I take that as an insult; these are my kids," he said. "We raised my kids for three years before they decided it was a problem.

"We all make bad decisions in life," he added. "This is about moving on."