By Jody Garlock
Sitting in a McDonald’s restaurant in Kentucky on New Year’s Day 2011, Dr. Noelle Hunter had a sinking feeling that something was wrong. Her ex-husband was three hours late to their planned meeting spot, where he was to return their 4-year-old daughter, Maayimuna “Muna” from a holiday visit. Her maternal instinct proved to be right. She and Muna had become victims of international parental child abduction (IPCA).
It was the start of an ordeal that Dr. Hunter never could have imagined.
After the FBI was able to confirm that her ex-husband had illegally taken Muna to Mali, West Africa, Hunter thrust herself into a tireless effort to bring her daughter home. She navigated cultural nuances and complex international law, staged protests in front of embassies in Washington, D.C., pleaded with United Nations members, and worked with a congressional delegation to pressure the Mali government to return Muna. In 2014, she was finally able to bring Muna, almost 7 by that time, home safely. But Hunter never took her foot off the gas.
For the past decade, the mother-turned-advocate has led the iStand Parent Network, which she co-founded in February 2014 to provide resources, support, and advocacy to IPCA survivors—parents and children alike. With Muna’s help (as an iStand Youth Ambassador), she has been a champion for change to ensure other parents don’t suffer the same fate—and a support for those enduring a similar struggle. Hunter was one of eight parent co-authors of the newly updated multimedia resource, When Your Child Is Missing: A Family Survival Guide.
In September 2023, the iStand Parent Network held its final annual conference and gala as the organization concluded nearly a decade of important and committed work to bring greater awareness and better understanding about the problem of IPCA, and support families impacted by it. Hunter—a clinical assistant professor at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH)—is now transitioning from advocacy work to a behind-the-scenes role in research and policy analysis through the university’s new International Child Abduction Prevention and Research Office (ICAPRO), which she spearheaded. “I’m just hard-wired to fight for children,” she says. We spoke with her about her journey—and what’s ahead.
How are you and Muna doing? How have you managed to move forward?
Muna is having the best year of her life. She’s 16 and a 10th-grader. She has a close friend group who shares her quirky humor and love for anime. She’s a naturally gifted visual artist, and just started her first job at a supermarket to earn her own money. Most of all, though, she is a truly gracious young lady—very kind, respectful, gentle—with a very strong sense of self. I marvel because she could justifiably be angry, non-trusting, or generally unhappy after her abduction. But she was never that way. As for me, my bedrock faith has always sustained and empowered me—first to bring Muna home, and then to help other families, and speak truth to power. It’s the simplest and greatest reason I thrive.
Did you imagine the iStand Parent Network would last a decade?
I honestly envisioned iStand enduring in perpetuity. Our motto is [the hashtag] #iStandUntilAllChildrenComeHome, so there is grief. But it was time to sunset the organization since its parent-driven engagement had decreased. It had become basically two parts—myself and Jeffery Morehouse [also a Family Survival Guide parent-author]—doing the policy work, with a few others helping. But iStand has catalyzed other organizations to form and continue the work, including iHOPE, a Lebanon-based NGO that will take it to the next level of global engagement. And most importantly, we’ve helped empower parents to bring children home. We’ve seen most elements of our 10-point vision statement come to life. So we can rest knowing that iStand has impacted generations.
What has changed with IPCA—good or bad—in the past 10 years?
We’ve seen legislation enacted, such as the Sean and David Goldman International Child Abduction Prevention and Return Act (aka “the Goldman Act” or ICAPRA) designed to ensure compliance with the Hague Abduction Convention, which set standards of practice between countries to resolve abductions. We’ve seen the U.S. government fully implement an abduction prevention program that includes a no-fly list for at-risk children—I’m most proud of that. We’ve also seen Congress recognize April as IPCA Awareness Month.
But during the pandemic, we lost a great deal of our momentum. We also believe Congress has rested on its laurels after passing ICAPRA, not giving weighty consideration to stronger enforcement of it and other laws. And tragically, there’s been little global reform on this issue. Some nations, such as the U.K., perform relatively well, while others, such as Japan, India, and Brazil, continue to disregard the Hague treaty and international norms concerning abducted children. This is brutal policy work and we’ve been doing it from a parent-advocate prospective, which gets us only so far. It’s time to shift to a data-driven approach.
Tell us about your new research initiative at UAH.
The goal is to begin to create a body of current literature in research on IPCA. Existing research is almost 20 years old and the information is woefully out of date. We want data to illustrate the scope of the problem, the gaps in federal and international responses. We want to take what we learn from the initial research to make policy recommendations to Congress. This all came about in a beautiful way. I teach classes at UAH, and in one of them we created a IPCA think tank. Students did such a wonderful job that I asked permission to develop it into an office concept, which took a year. Our 10th point of vision with iStand was to establish an independent entity that would guide research and engagement, so this is really an evolution of that.
What do you want law enforcement to know about IPCA cases?
No. 1, it is not a civil matter. The response tends to be, “We can’t do anything unless you get a court order,” and a court order is by definition a civil matter. But a parent is not required to have a court order to report their child missing. Federal law requires the child to be immediately entered into the NCIC database. No. 2, there are other laws that require law enforcement to fulfill first-responder duties without waiting for a court order. And No. 3, consider a child to be at risk when they’ve been taken internationally, regardless of if he or she is with a parent.
What was it like being one of the parent-authors of the updated When Your Child Is Missing: Family Survival Guide?
Eye-opening and transformative. I honestly had only thought about international abductions and didn’t see the number of similarities with domestic ones. I was also truly humbled by the grace of my co-authors whose children were murdered. What magnificent valor to continue to help others after the unimaginable. I was honored to be in their company and work with them on this project—which I already know is helping people: I received a call from a parent who was going down the checklist. Our hope is for it to be a widely known go-to source—for law enforcement, attorneys, social services, child and victim advocates, and others—as the first step to empower parents on this awful journey.
What’s next for you?
Besides the work I plan to do with the new International Child Abduction Prevention and Research Office, it’s time for me to live a little. Time to rest. I haven’t stopped since 2011 when my daughter was taken. It’s time to slow down and enjoy life knowing I’ve been a good soldier. And perhaps it’s time to start writing a book of this amazing story that doesn’t seem to have an end.
IPCA Myth Busters
Dr. Noelle Hunter dispels three common myths surrounding international parental child abduction (IPCA) cases
Myth: It’s feuding parents, not criminal action, that harms children and families.
Reality: Local law enforcement initially brushed off Hunter’s abduction claim, assuming she and her ex-husband had simply had a fight that would resolve itself. “I remember the exact words from them: ‘Well, I guess he just got tired of dealing with you and took her.’ ” She urges law enforcement to take parental child abduction seriously and treat it as the criminal matter it is.
Myth: Parents can just go get their child.
Reality: To get her daughter home safely, it took Hunter nearly three years of nonstop work, which involved developing a network of attorneys in both the U.S. and abroad. Despite court rulings in her favor, her ex-husband would file appeals to delay the process. Fortunately for Hunter, Muna’s return happened shortly before she turned 7—the age when a mother’s custodial rights greatly decrease in Mali. Hunter also contends that governments have been lax in enforcing the Hague Abduction Convention and holding non-compliant countries accountable.
Myth: The child is fine because he/she is with the other parent.
Reality: Even if there’s no physical harm, abducted children who have their life uprooted and are forced to adapt to a different culture takes an emotional toll, Hunter says. “My daughter was in a foreign country—she didn’t know anyone.”