RACINE — A Racine woman is stepping out of the shadows in the hopes that she can help other survivors of sexual assault.
Jennifer Bucholz was just 15 years old when was sexually assaulted by Michael W. Fink, who is now 51. Fink was charged with Bucholz's assault in 1986. In 1994, Fink was convicted of molesting two female babysitters and sentenced to 14 years.
Nearly 20 years later, in 2013, Bucholz experienced the shock of her life. As she was sitting at home scrolling through Facebook, she came upon a post from friend about the release of a violent sex offender being placed in the community.
Much to Bucholz’s surprise, she found herself staring at a picture of Fink, who was being released to the public and moving into a home right around the corner from her.
“I was terrified,” Bucholz said. “Once I was able to calm down, I opened the phone book and started making calls.”
Bucholz was able to stop her offender’s release into the nearby home, but she was upset by the entire situation.
“The state victimized me more than my offender did,” Bucholz said. “If this has happened to me, how many other people had it happened to?”
Now, Fink is preparing to be released again. Bucholz said she is more prepared since she has started helping others in recent years and become an advocate.
Survivor, not victim
Bucholz said the 2013 release incident left her wanting to help others.
“If I help one person and make it easier on them than it was on me, it would be worth it,” Bucholz said. “I had two choices: I could let this incident take me in a downward spiral and let this monster continue to have something over me. (Instead) I decided it was time for me to take back my life. And I needed to do something about it.”
Since 2013, Bucholz has volunteered at Sexual Assault Services of Lutheran Social Services, 1220 Mound Ave. She helps with the organization’s 24-hour crisis line, talking to survivors of sexual assault and responding to the hospital when a survivor shows up at the emergency room and sitting with patients and walking them through the process.
“I will volunteer there forever. It has been healing,” Bucholz said. “Before 2013, I always said I was a rape victim. I wasn’t a victim, I was a survivor.”
In 2018, Bucholz was awarded the Volunteer Center of Racine County’s Health Services Award for her work at the organization. She also received the Star of Hope in 2018 from Sexual Assault Services for his work there.
“The fact that volunteers like Jennifer are willing to use their time, well, it’s invaluable,” said Samantha Sustachek, program supervisor for Sexual Assault Services of Racine. “The value our volunteer advocates bring, you just can’t even measure it. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without volunteers.”
Changing the laws
Bucholz also was instrumental in the changing of laws affecting sex offender placement and procedures. After speaking with state and local officials, Bucholz found out that the City of Racine did not have an ordinance regarding where a sex offender could be placed.
Working with her alderman, Bucholz helped get an ordinance passed in April 2013 stating that sex offenders cannot live fewer than 1,000 feet from anywhere children congregate, such as churches, pools, parks, schools, libraries and day care centers within the City of Racine; although the ordinance has been slightly amended in recent years to give offenders some additional places they can live.
Bucholz didn’t stop at the city level. She also pushed for passage, in 2015, of Assembly Bill 497, a bill that tightens residency requirements for sexually violent persons on supervised release. It was signed into law on Feb. 29, 2016, by former Gov. Scott Walker.
The bill requires those labeled as violent sex offenders and committed to the care of the Department of Health Services to request a written recommendation of law enforcement in the proposed area’s jurisdiction.
It also limits where a sexually violent person who has committed crimes against children, or elderly or disabled people, may be placed.
In addition, the state also changed procedures regarding sex-offender releases, ensuring that those who are affected are notified when an offender is released.
Fink was later taken back into custody in 2015 after reportedly violating the conditions of his release. He reportedly had alcohol, contact with a felon and an unapproved sexual relationship with an adult — all of which were prohibitions. Fink also was accused of illegally tapping into cable, and a child’s sock was reportedly found in his laundry.
In February, the court determined that Fink was “making significant progress in treatment and will continue to do so on supervised release,” online records show.
Fink was approved for supervised release, for which DHS is expected to provide a plan, within 180 days. A status conference on his case is scheduled for March 22 in Racine County Circuit Court.
Even with Fink up for release soon, Bucholz said she is not no longer afraid. “I went public, but kept my identity hidden up until now because of fear of my offender, because he had threatened to harm me in the past when he got out. But I’m never going to stop fighting for survivor rights.”
Anyone who has been a victim of sexual assault can call 262-637-7233 (SAFE). A volunteer is available to answer the phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
To volunteer at Sexual Assault Services of Racine, call Volunteer Coordinator Annabelle Bustillos at 262-619-1634. For donations, call Program Supervisor Samantha Sustachek at the same number.