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A rapist stole 8-year-old Alicia Wade from her bed one spring night and returned her before dawn.

That morning - May 9, 1989 - was the last time the blond child would wake up at home for 21/2 years.Police refused to believe a stranger had assaulted Alicia, even though a man later pleaded guilty to similar assaults on five young girls, some in the Wade's neighborhood, during the same time period. Among those attacked was a 4-year-old who was taken from her own bedroom and molested less than a week after Alicia.

In the case of Alicia Wade, however, investigators chose to focus on her father, Jim Wade, a burly 20-year Navy veteran whose eyes fill with tears as he talks about his daughter.

"I don't think people realize just how tenuous your hold on your children is," said Wade, 37. "They don't have to prove anything. They can take your kids away on just suspicions."

San Diego County's Child Protective Services put Alicia in a foster home. Thirteen months later, she finally said, "Daddy did it."

"She was told over and over that she had to blame her daddy," said Alicia's mother, Denise Wade, 33. "She was isolated from her family. It was a form of torture and brainwashing."

Alicia later told her mother, "I was just saying what they told me to say." She never realized her father might go to prison.

Wade was arrested on Dec. 13, 1990, while on the job as a Navy parachute rigger. He was charged with committing lewd acts on a child, a crime that carried a possible 16-year prison sentence. "I thought my life was over," he said.

Instead, the arrest proved to be his salvation.

Wade's attorney, Michael McGlinn, discovered overlooked semen stains on Alicia's gown and underwear and sent them to a laboratory for DNA tests.

Alicia was a week away from being adopted by another family when the results came back: The semen could not have come from her father.

On Nov. 15, Superior Court Judge Frederic Link dismissed the case. He also went one step further, making a rare factual finding of innocence and ordering Wade's arrest record destroyed. Alicia could go home.

By then, the Wades had endured an endless, humiliating series of interrogations, therapy sessions, psychological tests and court appearances.

Neighbors snubbed them. Friends stopped playing with Alicia's brother, Joshua, now 9. And his parents lived under constant threats that he, too, might be taken from them.

Saddled with $125,000 in legal fees, the Wades were forced to borrow from his parents.

The couple had given up hope of regaining custody of Alicia, and both considered suicide. Mrs. Wade was hospitalized for depression. Joshua was confused and frightened.

"I'm still scared to this day that they're going to come and take my children away," said Mrs. Wade, who wakes in fear every night and peeks into Alicia's bedroom for reassurance her daughter is safe.

The Wades expect Alicia to need counseling for much of her life, and they hope a lawsuit filed against San Diego County will help pay the bills.

Their claim, which asks unspecified damages for emotional and physical trauma, accuses Child Protective Services, the district attorney's office, San Diego police, and various attorneys, counselors and social workers of negligence.

"I expected a lot more from the government and Constitution I've spent 20 years protecting," Wade said.

The Wades complained to the county grand jury, which unknown to them was already investigating Child Protective Services. A report issued in February described the agency as "out of control, with few checks and little balance."

The grand jury found the system overzealous in separating children from allegedly abusive families and said the child protection system had developed a bias that assumed the guilt of parents accused of child abuse.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has scheduled a special March 10 public hearing to discuss the need for changes in the child protection system.

Although the Wades have consented to making their legal records public, county spokesman Bob Lerner said officials are prohibited by privacy laws from commenting on the case.

Kathleen Goodfriend, a county-hired private counselor whom the Wades blame most for coercing Alicia into accusing her father, did not return phone calls.

The Wades, who have guarded Alicia from interviews or photographs, decided to speak out publicly in hopes of changing the system they say nearly destroyed them. The family has become a potent symbol for the local chapter of Victims of Child Abuse Laws, which says their case is repeated across the nation.

"The Juvenile Court system suspects all parents who come to their attention, even if they don't have any evidence," said Gloria Peters, president of the San Diego chapter. "They try to make the children create evidence."

The Wades believe Alicia was attacked by Albert Carder Jr., who has been sentenced to 25 years in prison for molesting five young girls in spring 1989.

He has not been charged in the Wade case. Police Detective William Montejano, who was involved in both the Wade and Carder cases, confirmed that Alicia failed to pick Carder out of a police line-up.

DNA tests, however, showed Carder was among 5 percent of the population that could have produced the semen stains on Alicia's clothing, said Cathy Stephenson, head of the San Diego County district attorney's child abuse unit. Further tests are under way.

The Wades, meanwhile, have made plans to leave after Jim Wade retires from the Navy in May. They have decided on Cabool, Mo., near his parents and far from San Diego, where the "people responsible have never even apologized," Wade said. "And even if they did, they could never apologize enough."

Alicia will leave a different child, one who no longer delights in afternoons with friends, bike-riding and Barbie dolls. She prefers to play alone now, and seldom ventures outside. Once an A student, she has trouble with her homework. She angers often and cries easily.