A Whangārei mother was sickened when her young son recounted a joyride with strangers that wound away from the park where he was supposed to meet friends.
A child advocacy group says the incident was an opportunity for the community to collectively hold adults responsible for unsavoury behaviour towards children and young people.
"Anyone who has worked in child protection knows how quickly seemingly innocent situations can turn into harmful incidents," Jane Searle, chief executive of Child Matters, said.
"When it comes to the safety of our children, there is too much at stake if communities do not act with vigilance - that is our best protection."
The boy's shaken mother, who did not want to be named, was guilt-ridden her ten-year-old son had gone with the two adults in their Ford sedan on January 12 despite the fact she had discussed the issue of stranger danger with him previously.
But a child behaviour expert says teaching children about public safety can be difficult when temptation is pitched against possible consequences.
The family, who recently moved to Kamo from a rural area outside Northland, had just finished dinner when the woman's son asked if he could meet new friends he had made at the Kamo Sports Park around 7.30pm.
His mother felt comfortable with him going alone as the park was close to the family home and the boy knew he had a 30-minute time limit he could track on his wristwatch.
"Usually his sister goes with him but she didn't this time. But we've had the talks about stranger danger," she said. "He knows he needs to be home at a certain time and if he isn't that I'll be coming to find him."
As the boy walked 100m to the park alone - his sixth visit that day - he spotted two people sitting in their Ford sedan, which triggered his affinity for fast cars.
"He approached this person and asked if their car can go fast," she said.
The boy told his mother the man replied "yes" and asked if he wanted to "jump in for a ride".
"Because he loves his fast cars he just decided to get in," she said.
According to her son, he sat in the back as they drove 600m down the road, past the Kamo Mobile, and headed northwest towards to Pipiwai Rd.
They did a u-turn and dropped the boy back at the park. The boy couldn't tell his mother how long the journey had taken. But he did say at one point the man and woman gave him a burger and fries.
His mother was horrified when her son came home around 8pm and said he had just been for a ride in a "cool as car".
"I'm lucky he came home," she said. "If you are an adult, putting a child you don't know into your car is not being adult enough - you don't do that."
University of Auckland law expert Bill Hodge said despite the boy appearing to consent, the Crimes Act states no person under the age of 16 can consent to being taken away and detained.
It made the woman "sick to her stomach" that her son could not go to the park by himself because "society was not safe". She said her kids were never allowed to leave with another person or friend without her permission.
Searle said only in exceptional circumstances to protect a child - with, if possible, the advice of the New Zealand police or Oranga Tamariki - could you justify taking a child away without parental consent.
"It is never acceptable for a child to be taken anywhere unless their caregiver is aware of what is happening," she said. "We all need to be proactive in protecting them and that means speaking up about behaviour that could be unsafe and, if in doubt, to seek advice."
The incident has made the protective mother rethink the way she has communicated to her son about keeping safe in public.
"You know we had all the chats, we have the rules in place but at the end of the day he still jumped in."
Hannah Hill, a consultant behavioural analyst with 17 years' experience working with young child and adolescents, said a child's fixation on certain items or ideas can often outweigh any perceived possibility of a negative outcome.
"A strong desire to go for a joy ride in a car that you absolutely love is likely to whack a massive spanner in the works," Hill said. "The immediacy of gratification is a powerful persuader."
Hill said life experience was an advantage grown-ups had over children when it came to assessing dangers.
"As adults we become aware of the negative consequences associated with taking risks because we're exposed to the news of these things happening ... so our life experience teaches us about the possible effects of our actions."
A Northland police spokesperson said they were still establishing the facts of the case and were working to identify the people in the alleged vehicle.
"Once Police have all of the facts we will be able to establish if an offence has been committed."
Advice for parents
Hannah Hill, a consultant behavioural analyst, says educating your child around keeping safe in public can be tricky because you want to find the balance between alerting your child to dangers without terrifying them from independently interacting with the world.
Hill says one of the simplest ways is to encourage your child to seek permission from a parent when they want to talk to or leave with someone who is not a family member or a friend.
But again, that brings challenges as many kids have been hurt or abused by the people they should be able to trust, Hill said.
She recommended explanation-based learning.
"In other words, the parent explains the situation, gives scenarios and then the child puts it into their own words by way of explanation," Hill said. "This helps them connect ideas, form their own generalisations and in doing so understand new information more efficiently."
Northland district youth and community manager, Senior Sergeant Patrick Davis, said to help keep kids safe, parents should know where their children are going, what they are doing and what time they are expected home.
Anyone who is approached should immediately report the incident to police on 111.
"Give as much detail as possible and if people have a phone, try and take a photo - if they can do so safely," Davis said.