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Children spent weeks playing with human remains in a creek before a parent discovered what they were, it emerged yesterday.
Believing they had found a crocodile carcass, the children had picked up parts of a badly decomposed body in Stanmore Bay on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, north of Auckland.
Police are investigating whether the remains are those of Alanah Brough (39) who went missing in the area on January 30.
The children play for the Hibiscus Coast Raiders Rugby Club, whose vice-chairman, Merve Heka, said the children discovered the skeleton during a gala day on July 25.
On Wednesday, about 6pm, one of the parents of a child in the under-9s team followed his son after team practice to investigate the remains.
It is believed he tried to fish them out with a broomstick.
"He pulled it out and there was black hair on the back of its head still," Mr Heka said.
"He dropped it. He knew straight away it was human. Kids will play with anything they see."
The police were then called.
Mr Heka said a kaumatua would visit the club and creek to bless the areas.
"Three or four of these kids are quite traumatised by it."
A neighbour said he was walking his dog past the creek on Wednesday night when he spotted about 10 young boys prodding the skeleton with sticks.
One of the children told him: "Mr, I think we've found a crocodile in the creek".
"They were in there playing with it for about two weeks," he said.
Ms Brough, who has two sons aged 7 and 14, vanished after leaving her home on January 30.
Her mother, Judith Brough, said in February she had been concerned for her daughter's wellbeing as she had recently lost weight and displayed unusual behaviour.
Detective Inspector Bruce Scott, of Waitemata, said it was too early to tell if the body was that of Ms Brough.
Mr Scott said the remains were "very badly decomposed".