Childhood out-of-home care is associated with premature death in adulthood, in particular death by suicide, accidents and violence. However, little is known about the mortality risk in the much larger population of adults that had contact with social services in childhood but never entered out-of-home care. We determine the association between all tiers of contact with children’s social services and risk of suicide and other sudden deaths in young adulthood.
This population-wide, longitudinal, record-linkage study of adults in Northern Ireland born between 1985 and 1997 (n=437 008) followed each individual from age 18 years to July 2021 (maximum age 36 years). Cox regression models estimated the association between level of contact with social services in childhood (no contact; referred but assessed as not in need (NIN); child in need (CIN) and child in care (CIC)) and risk of death by suicide and sudden death in young adulthood.
Individuals with childhood social care contact (n=51 097) comprised 11.7% of the cohort yet accounted for 35.3% of sudden deaths and 39.7% of suicide deaths. Risk of suicide or sudden death increased stepwise with level of childhood contact and was highest in adults with a history of out-of-home care (suicide HR 8.85 (95% CI 6.83 to 11.4)). Individuals assessed as NIN, and those deemed a CIN, had four times the risk of death by suicide in young adulthood compared with unexposed peers (HR 4.25 (95% CI 3.26 to 5.53) and HR 4.49 (95% CI 3.75 to 5.39), respectively).
Childhood contact with social services is a risk marker for death by suicide and sudden death in young adulthood. Risk is not confined to adults with a history of out-of-home care but extends to the much larger population that had contact with social services but never entered care.