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Missouri father wants to change family laws he says prevented him from seeing his son

Mark Ludwig says the current family laws treat dads unfairly in divorce cases.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — All month, 5 On Your Side is focused on the mental health crisis in America. This morning, we look at the impact of divorce on children and families. One Missouri father has been fighting for years to change the family laws that prevented him from seeing his son.

"Every day of his life has been documented now," said father Mark Ludwig, flipping through notebooks filled with photos of his son and handwritten memories.

Writing memories down in those journals is how Ludwig ensures his son can reflect on their time together. That’s because time isn't something he and his son have always had.

"After my son was born, he was moved without my knowledge," Ludwig said. "I spent 204 days tracking him down and getting access to him. After that time, I was relegated to an every other weekend visitor."

Ludwig learned personally how hard divorce or separation can be on couples and their children. He says dads aren't treated fairly in court.

"If a couple gets divorced or separated, that child needs access to that father, each parent adds value to a child in a different way," Ludwig explained.

That's why he has made it his mission to change family court laws and launched the non-profit Americans For Equal Shared Parenting.

Last year, he traveled to 24 states trying to pass legislation.

"I was just surprised. I thought this would only take a year or two to get passed. We've been working in Missouri now since 2016," he explained.

Republican Representative Jim Murphy of south St. Louis County is the sponsor of House Bill 1974, also known as the shared parenting bill.

"I believe that fathers have been discriminated against in the past. There’s almost a presumption that a woman should have custody and that you have to prove that the woman has done something wrong in order to equalize that. It shouldn't ever be that way, it should be both presumed equal unless proven otherwise," Murphy said.

Family law attorney Martha Moran says Missouri courts are already striving for 50-50 in custody cases.

"It's not just winning custody. The goal is shared custody. Research shows that children benefit from having significant, if not equal, contact with both parents,” Moran said.

Moran said the state's laws were updated in 2012 to reflect that goal. Her problem with this bill is it tries to give a one-size-fits-all approach to something very complex.

"The court is going to attempt to give as much time as possible to each parent, but sometimes it’s just not possible," she explained.

Despite the length of time it’s taking to pass, Ludwig says he won’t stop. He wants to make sure fathers like him don’t have to go through what he went through just to see their children.

"High school drop-out rates, drug rates, you read of all these problems and almost all of those, half of those would go away if you would get 50-50 equal shared parenting and allow dads back into their child’s lives," he said.

Representative Murphy tells 5 On Your Side the shared parenting bill is making its way through the House and Senate. It may stall again with only two weeks left of session.