Julian and Tali Wendrow of Michigan used to believe in the American justice system. Now, after they say their lives were ruined by a criminal investigation a federal judge described as “a runaway train,” they warn their neighbors that what happened to them can happen to anyone.
The Wendrows’ nightmare began when their severely autistic teenage daughter Aislinn supposedly revealed Julian was abusing her and that Tali knew. But there was one obvious problem: Aislinn has not talked since she was three. Her allegations were typed out in school with the help of an assistant called a facilitator who purportedly enabled Aislinn to communicate.
A quick Google search would have revealed the technique, when used with autistic people, had been widely dismissed by researchers. Nevertheless, authorities believed the accusations and failed to question whether Aislinn may have been manipulated by her facilitator. They charged the parents, removed their children from their home and threw the father in jail for months before the case was ultimately dropped after defense attorneys demonstrated Aislinn couldn’t communicate after all.
Along the way, the police brought Aislinn’s younger brother, Ian, then 13, in for questioning. The detective misled the boy, telling him police had discovered concrete evidence against his father beyond her typed “statements.” The family later sued the police and the department settled for $1.8 million without admitting wrongdoing.
Should police be allowed to mislead children when they are being questioned? Watch footage of Ian’s interview with police below and vote on the issue.
Watch the full story Friday on “20/20″ at 10 p.m. ET.