Affton's Mark Ludwig is the force behind a Sunset Hills event kicking off a new men's rights group, Americans for Shared Parenting. The July 17 event drew support from many local notables, including the late Phyllis Schlafly's niece, Suzanne Venker.

Ludwig said the mission of the group is to make sure both men and women are treated fairly in court when it comes to custody issues with children. For Ludwig, the issue is personal and has inspired his activism in the area of men's and fathers' rights.

"Shortly after my son was born, I was denied access to him for 204 days," said Ludwig. "After a custody battle that left me totally broke, I now only have my son six overnights a month. That's a visitor, not a father.

"After going through what I did, I got calls from fathers with similar stories of getting the standard four to six overnights per month," said Ludwig. "These weren't deadbeat dads, but fathers desperately wanting to be part of their child's life. I soon realized that yes, there are deadbeat dads out there who walk away. But there are just as many willing and able fathers who are being systematically pushed out."

According to U.S. Census data, 24.6 million kids in the United States go to bed without their biological father in their house each night. A number of academics and pundits contend society is paying a heavy price for the loss of fatherly influence in the family.

Ludwig cites statistics that show that "fatherlessness" is a major factor in such crisis situations as youth suicides, substance abuse, high school dropout rates, teen behavioral problems and imprisoned youth.

Ludwig said Suzanne Venker of Warson Woods is a local and national authority on the family who has provided a welcome perspective on men's rights and the declining presence of male role models in American families.

"Terry Brennan, one of the co-founders of Leading Women for Shared Parenting, reached out to me and asked if they could be a part of this event," Ludwig said. "Brennan mentioned that Suzanne wanted to come to the event and she contacted me.

"I have read much of Suzanne's work. She has been a valuable asset to the entire shared parenting movement. Her articles have really helped to change public perception regarding this issue," said Ludwig. "I am so grateful that she is from St. Louis."

Venker's Take

Venker was introduced at the meeting along with her new book, "The Alpha Female's Guide to Men & Marriage." Venker has appeared on television's "Fox & Friends," where she has argued that society is creating a new crop of alpha females who are unable to love. She said husbands need softness from women, not hardness.

"My presence at this meeting tonight is related to my mission of promoting marriage and family," she said. "I support this group and I think the emphasis needs to be on addressing that word 'fatherlessness.' Families, children and society all suffer when fathers are made to be absent.

"I'm also interested in Missouri politics on this issue," Venker told the Times. "It is gratifying to see so many of our state politicians here tonight."

Among the local legislators showing support were: Sen. Andrew Koenig, Rep. Cloria Brown, Rep. Kathryn Swan, Rep. Marsha Haefner and more.

Changing Missouri Law

A primary mission of the Americans for Shared Parenting is passing laws for equal parenting rights in Missouri and across the country. Ludwig said that means advocating for a "Rebuttable Presumption" as a starting point for equality when both parents enter a courtroom in a custody case.

"We do not want to force all custody situations into a forced 50/50 arrangement and we do not support parents who voluntarily walk away from their child," cautioned Ludwig. "However, we do want to make sure the playing field is level for any parent who wants to be an active part of their child's life."

In the state legislature this year, Ludwig championed bills HB724 and SB377, which were basically identical bills. The goal of the bills was to give a "Rebuttable Presumption of 50/50." It is important to note that this does not guarantee 50/50 custody in all situations. It merely states that when two parents walk into a courtroom, they should be assumed (Presumption) to be equal at 50/50 until the facts are heard (Rebuttable).

Currently in Missouri, children only receive four to six overnights a month with their non-custodial parent.

"Our bills had overwhelming support in both chambers and passed the House Judicial Committee 9-0 in the last week of the session," said Ludwig. "The only reason it did not become law this year is due to the huge backlog of bills in the Senate, which had one of the biggest backlogs in state history.

"With such overwhelming support, I firmly believe that next year Missouri will be the first state in the country to pass a solid Rebuttable Presumption Bill," added Ludwig. "Once this happens, the Missouri bill will set the standard used by states across the country that pass similar bills."

Ludwig graduated from Affton High School in 1982 and has been active in the Affton Chamber of Commerce and as a past vice president of the Affton Alumni Association.

Ludwig said he has been active in the political arena for almost 30 years, and served on the Small Business Policy Council for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce & Industry during the state administration of Gov. Matt Blunt.