North Dakota confronts a problem borne of the oil boom that if not addressed quickly and effectively, has the potential to unravel the fabric of communities in western counties and much of the rest of the state. It’s a plague of societal pollution and degradation that is wreaking havoc far worse than environmental oil spills, radioactive waste or gas flaring. It’s the illegal trafficking of women and girls for the purpose of selling them into the sex trade.

Today, Forum News Service opens an eight-part print, online and broadcast series of investigative reports that delve into the growth of the sex trade in a vast swath of territory from Minneapolis to Williston from Duluth, Minn., to Dickinson. It’s a “follow-the-money” story that exposes a business that is well-funded (often by illegal drug money) and more sophisticated than most people in the region would have believed. It’s attracted what law enforcement experts describe as “organized criminal gangs.” For the most part that’s a new phenomenon in this part of the country.

As the series reveals, the notion that women and girls voluntarily enter the sex trade for the money is false. Most are victims of coercion. Most get entangled in the trade and then are afraid to get out because they might be criminally charged. Many are troubled girls who are enticed by promises of support and/or money, and later discover they are trapped.

The tragedy that befalls young girls surely is disturbing. But one of the more shocking factors revealed in the series is the mind-boggling demand for paid sexual encounters with girls, some as young as 14.

For example, during a law enforcement sting in a western North Dakota city, 11 men took online bait that advertised girls 10 to 16 years of age - in a matter of just a couple of hours. Officers said that had they not stopped the sting, they could have nabbed at least 10 more potential johns. And that was one sting in one city in one night.

Law enforcement agencies on all levels are doing what they can. More resources have been brought to the fight. But the reality is - and they concede it readily - they are overwhelmed.

The Forum News Service report was accomplished through the coordinated efforts of reporters, photographers, graphic artists, editors and analysts, including Dickinson Press reporter Katherine Lymn.

The package is a comprehensive examination of Oil Patch-driven sex trafficking - the kind of project that could be undertaken only because of the resources of Forum Communications Co., the largest multi-media organization in the region. The reports in print and online (today through Saturday), and a Jan. 11 half-hour documentary by WDAY TV’s Kevin Wallevand (10:35 p.m.) open a window onto singularly destructive pathologies. The warning is clear: Sex trafficking in women and girls has the potential to destroy individuals and families, and to darken the future of entire communities.

Forum Communications Co. composed this editorial.