THE television journalist Kate Adie, who was adopted as a baby, was reported yesterday to have been happily reunited with her natural mother and sister after searching for a year. But the newspaper stories made one person unhappy.

Ariel Bruce is a unique professional who specialise in tracking down the families of adopted children or those taken into care.

‘I understand the family were very upset about the way this came out. It's such a private matter,' says Ariel. ‘There's enough strain in being adopted and deciding to search for your birth family. Having then to reveal yourself as a public figure when you find them is even more stressful.' The glare of publicity further aggravates the tension.

Ariel, 41, was aware of these problems when she traced the half-sister of actress Stephanie Cole. But yesterday Stephanie was happy to talk on radio about Ariel and the consequent meeting with her sibling.

Ariel explains: ‘We did a lot of careful work to find out that her sister was interested in the contact before she knew who Stephanie was. Psychologically that's very important. The fact that it is someone you might have watched regularly on television is revealed much later.' We're sitting in Ariel's attic flat in Bloomsbury, from where she works. There are thank-you cards from grateful clients, photographs of her four children and eclectic reference books, from a 1954 London Post Office directory to stacks of Who's Who. The office wall is covered with photographs of smiling people - the relations she has reunited. Ariel has a peaceful, open face, studenty specs and wears jeans and a T-shirt. A trained social worker, she has been tracing lost relations for nine years. It started with a chance encounter with James, an 18-year-old odd-job man, who had wanted to find his mother since early childhood. Ariel comes from a Jewish, Hampstead-intellectual, bohemian background. She empathises with her clients' feelings of rootlessness because of her own experience: her parents were refugees from pre-war Germany who parted, and her mother was deemed unfit to bring her up, so Ariel was put into care from the age of 11 to 18. She was in six foster homes and cannot even remember the names of four of her foster parents.

‘But my relationships with my foster parents give me some understanding of the sort of work I do. I am poacher turned gamekeeper.'

She has been married and divorced twice and has four children, the eldest a 22-year-old son, the youngest a daughter still at school.

She tells the moving tale of one case she worked on for three years. ‘When we found the birth mother, she told us her daughter had been born as the result of what you'd call date rape these days. She was blamed by her husband and family for having ‘asked for it'. I was touched that she had wanted the child at the time, and 40 years later she still did.' But they are not all happy endings. Recently she did a search on behalf of a man who had a background of both mental and alcohol problems. ‘When we found his mother, she was an alcoholic. The meeting had a traumatic effect on everyone involved.'

Ariel doesn't just work with adoptions. One man in his seventies wanted her to find his old sweetheart. Ariel didn't think they'd be able to find her - or that she'd be available if they did or that she'd still like him. It took nine months. ‘But we managed - and they fell in love all over again.'

Since 1926 three-quarters of a million children have been adopted in Great Britain. ‘Adoption touches most of us in some way,' says Ariel. Now, every year, there are about 10,000 adoptions, of whom 500 are infants, and since the Children's Act of 1975, they have the right to see their birth certificates.

She says there are no trade secrets in her work - it is 90 per cent rote and 10 per cent inspiration. ‘It's a mixture of rational, logical - akin to a game of chess - and human.'

She works with a permanent staff of another social worker, a genealogist and administrator, and draws on a pool of research specialists. A successful search tends to end in a highly discreet letter, and she has helped hundreds of people of all ages and social classes. Her charges are normally from £650 to £800.

Many adoptees, she believes, need to know their origins. They need to know their roots to feel secure.

But why do so many people want to trace their relatives rather than leave well enough alone? She looks incredulous. ‘The question is more curious about why people wouldn't want to. In my view, closed adoption (where there is no information or contact) is an unnatural state.